Matthew Sowemimo explains why the Social Liberal Forum has been
created and why it has been launched now
Social Liberalism is the mainstream philosophy of the Liberal
Democrats and has been so since the Grimond era. Social liberalism recognises
that an individual’s material and personal circumstances can act as a constraint
on them realising freedom. How meaningful is freedom if you don’t have a house
or a pension? This core Social Liberal analysis is as relevant to today’s world
as it was to the Edwardian era.
While political freedoms such as freedom of speech are crucial, poverty,
inherited disadvantage and in today’s world, climate change, can curtail
freedom. Lloyd George preceded his challenge to the landed aristocracy with the
damning phrase that “a nation that ruled the waves could not even flush its own
sewers.” Liberals have used state action to challenge disadvantages that prevent
individuals realising their full potential. As Nick Clegg has said, “freedom and
liberty mean nothing unless the barriers to progress and opportunity are
Beveridge provided the intellectual underpinnings for a welfare state that
brought about significant improvements in life expectancy and quality of life
for many Britons. The call for state intervention to give disabled people full
civil rights in the high street and the workplace did not come from some Fabian
elite but from the grassroots. It came from people who had been dismissed from
employment and who could not cross the threshold of the local supermarket.
The state can play a role as an enabler and can break up concentrations of power
and wealth essential for expanding life chances. But a call for renewed state
action does not mean an embrace of the forms of intervention favoured by
Crosland, Brown and Blunkett. The state of 2009 is centralist, insensitive and
Despite record funding, our public services remain stubbornly unresponsive. All
the consultation documents in the world do not amount to a genuine voice for
citizens in the planning of key services like health care. Liberal Democrats
need to refashion and reinvent the state and not simply through
For example, will citizens have a stronger voice in shaping decisions about
schools and hospitals if they are given social and economic rights, enshrined in
a written constitution? Campaigners used South Africa’s constitutional
entitlement of ‘the right to health’ to force Thabo Mbeki to overturn his ban on
the funding of HIV drugs. Defining clear rights in these areas should also be
part of the debate.
But why the Forum and why now?
Social Liberalism speaks powerfully to the needs of our times. This is an age
when we survey the ruins of insolvent financial institutions bequeathed to us by
the abdication of regulation. Across the world, existing divisions over
ethnicity, religion or caste are being intensified by poverty and the advance of
climate change. Equality is now not just a moral imperative but is essential for
the quality of life of people across the social spectrum.
Economies like South Africa and Brazil are the real growth engines for the world
economy in the future but they are being held back by the inequalities within
I am diminished if the child down the road is underachieving at school
and leaves school with inadequate qualifications. If a woman in Salford is paid
less for her work than a male colleague doing the same job, our taxes will end
up paying for her retirement. How can we compete in the world economy when
working class children born at the millennium are already falling behind their
less academically able middle class peers?
Richard Wilkinson’s new publication,
The Spirit Level, has provided
powerful evidence that unequal societies like Britain diminish the quality of
life available to people across the social spectrum. For example, Wilkinson
found that even in an area that is closely associated with working class
disadvantage – achievement at school – more equal societies see higher levels of
literacy among the children even of better educated families. He demonstrates
how inequality hits the quality of life across the whole community in areas
ranging from trust in your neighbours to homicide. Wilkinson’s findings should
chasten those who believe that the affluent can insulate themselves from the
consequences of deprivation elsewhere in our society.
So while there is a compelling case for a reinvigorated national and
international effort to achieve equality, can Liberal Democrats generate the
electoral support to make this possible? Some people have suggested that we have
now reached the limits of public support for redistribution of wealth and
opportunity. I disagree. When voters are shown the impact that successful
anti-poverty policies can have, they rally in support of equality.
The banking crisis represents a major strategic moment for the centre left.
Margaret Thatcher exploited the IMF crisis and the Winter of Discontent to press
her case for free market policies and possessive individualism. The banking
crisis demonstrates that free markets do not inherently serve the public
interest. In this recession, both middle and working class people share economic
insecurity and will look to the state to provide them with social protection.
President Obama is taking advantage of this climate in the United States to push
forward with the biggest expansion of the federal government since the New Deal.
And Social Liberalism is indispensable for our electoral coalition. Labour
voters put us over the top in a series of seats won from the Conservatives in
1997 and 2001. We now represent a swathe of seats in university towns where
middle class Labour voters were won over by our policy on tuition fees and our
uncompromising internationalism on Iraq.
The Social Liberal Forum was formed in order to generate debate within the party
and beyond. Our title is not accidental. We don’t exist simply to promote some
pre-defined policy agenda. We want to engage with party members across the
country. That’s why we have started the Ideas Factory on our website. A liberal
party needs open debate.
There are some really big questions for our party to consider as we formulate
our manifesto and beyond:
- Can we break the cycle of inherited disadvantage by investing in
education alone? Will an emphasis on education be distinctive enough to counter
David Cameron’s Conservatives?
- If we are serious about hitting the 2002 child poverty target, and we
reject means-testing, what does that mean for child benefit?
- Who are the poorest in our society and what are the policy
interventions that will help them?
- While worklessness is a key driver of poverty, free marketers should
recognise that work that delivers low pay and limited progression can also
entrench poverty, particularly for women.
- How can we develop a framework where business meets its social and
environmental obligations and maintain competitiveness?
One hundred years on from the People’s Budget, the
inequalities in life chances in today’s Britain demand that we reconnect with
our radical heritage. Throughout our party’s history – whether it be honouring
moral obligations to the Hong Kong Chinese; Kosovo; or upholding international
law on Iraq – where we have shown leadership and moral clarity, we have been
Dr Matthew Sowemimo is Director of the Social Liberal Forum.
This article has been republished on the Social Liberal Forum website here, where it is open for comment. The companion article in Liberator 332 by David Boyle has also been republished here and is likewise available for comment, as is a reply by Richard Grayson.
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