Monday, April 25, 2011

What does the Social Liberal Forum mean by "radical" and "progressive"?

The new Liberator arrives and I find my fellow members of the editorial collective have filled every spare space with advertisements for The Social Liberal Forum.

I am a Liberal and am instinctively suspicious of qualifying adjectives, whether "economic" or "social", but let's have a look at what the advertisement has to say.

It tells us that the Forum does five things, and with three of them I am entirely comfortable. They are:
  • Rejects any electoral pacts with any party and any pre-election preference for future working with any other party.
This has to be right. I can see there is a temptation, for those of us who are comfortable with the Coalition, government, to entertain the idea of some form of pact with the Conservatives at the next election. But at the election after that the case would be even stronger, and we would soon be looking at the elimination of the Liberal Democrats as an independent party. So no pacts and preferences has to be the line.
  • Seeks to help create and communicate a distinctive Liberal Democrat position on government policies and their implementation.
I suppose there are those who would counsel against "rocking the boat" while we are in coalition, but this strikes me as being what all Liberal Democrats should be doing.
  • Campaigns to maintain the internal democracy, transparency and vitality of the Liberal Democrats as an independent political party.
Sign me up today.

But there are two further points that make me hesitate. They read:
  • Works to develop - as a priority - a distinctive, radical and progressive set of politics and manifesto for the next election.
  • Opposes the adoption of any non-progressive or illiberal policies by the coalition.
We are all against being illiberal, but what these points mean depends entirely upon what meaning you give to "radical" and "progressive".

I don't believe the Social Liberal Forum is "radical", if being radical means going to the root of things and proposing the reconstruction of society on new principles. It seems more concerned with defending what remains of the post-war social democratic settlement.

And that doesn't worry me. Because these days I find the doctrine that society can or should be reconstructed from first principles inherently dangerous. All democratic and humane politics is a matter of gently moving society in one direction or another. What matters, what democratic debate is about, is the direction in which you wish to moves things.

Which brings us to "progressive".

Am I wrong to think that this is a word that has entered Liberal Democrat discourse in the last few years and that it has come their from the Labour Party? Certainly, I associate the word as it is used in Labour circles with the idea progress consists in more and more areas of social life coming under the control of the state and the professionals that it certifies.

For instance, to me progress does not involve children spending increasing amounts of time in SureStart centres: it involves parents increasingly having the time and the confidence to care for their children themselves. (See Passport to Liberty 5 from Liberator if you want to read more of my views.)

Perhaps I am being unfair, but if this is what is meant by "progress" I am not a progressive. And that is why I shall not be joining the Social Liberal Forum.


dreamingspire said...

No, No - don't condemn them on those grounds, please. 'Progressive' means changing incrementally in a determined manner, one foot in front of the other and hoping you don't put that front foot in a rabbit hole and break a leg (as my sister-in-law did in a completely different context). So the radical should develop bit by bit, in an evolutionary manner.

More dangerous is the 'social' bit.

Nick said...

To me, 'progressive' is normally used as shorthand for 'I like nice things' (and thus anyone who doesn't agree with the person using the word is obviously against people having nice things and cannot be trusted. Of course, no one ever really defines what these nice things are, but that would involve coming up with actual policies.

teekblog said...

Hi Jonathan - thanks for this intriguing blog post. I'm glad you subscribe to many of the principles set out by the social liberal forum, not least those relating to party independence and process.

As for the 'radical and progressive' nature of the policies we feel that Lib Dems should stand for, perhaps this may help allay your concerns?

Your contention that politics is a matter of gently moving society in one direction or another strikes me, if I may be so bold, as an quintessentially conservative (small-c) argument. I understand entirely that politics is very much the art of the possible, but such pragmatism in the implementation of policy ought not to stand in the way of expressing and advocating the first principles upon which the direction of travel is predicated. Of course tearing up the fabric of our political settlement is not desirable, but radical (in the 'other meaning(s)' of the word, i.e. large-scale, non-conventional and/or bold) doesn't imply revolutionary - indeed it's a rather sad indictment of the anodyne nature of our political discourse that anyone backing genuine change of how the nation works is labelled a radical at best and a swivel-eyed lunatic most of the time.

On to the word progressive. Despite (some factions within) Labour may have hijacked the word for the meaning you ascribe to it, I feel it belongs firmly within the Liberal Democratic tradition. I take the word progressive to mean 'having the effect of advancing the capabilities of all within a society in a direction that makes people more free to enjoy the lives they have reason to value,' an unashamedly Sen-ite (is that a word? can we make it a word...?) view. So, for me, it isn't about public policy to give the State more control over people's lives, it's about public policy that ensures people are capable of controlling their lives more themselves - an essential liberal position I'm sure you'd agree?

As for the policy implications of these primary (largely philosophical) arguments, they centre around the deployment of locally accountable, democratically constituted public services and public goods to enhance people's capabilities; hence the belief in a secular, inclusive education system, in a healthcare system that doesn't allow selective treatment for the lucky few whilst leaving many behind, for an economic settlement that ensures the fruits of growth accrue to all according to due desert and not according to who has the biggest voice. SureStart is a public programme that enables parents to do more of the things you'd like them to do - I could go on into specifics of other government policy but I feel a separate post may be merited :-).

Nick - your cutting comment about liking nice things ends in the charge that progressives don't put forward policy. How about SLF policy on banking, overwhelmingly supported by Conference? Is that not an example of progressives define[ing] what these nice things are? If we had staff, time and money we'd soon come up with concrete positive policy, much like CentreForum has been doing for some time - but don't be under the impression we're just 'in favour of nice things!'

Jonathan Calder said...


I am all in favour of small steps - though quite how these are reconciled with radicalism is another question.

What worries me about the current use of "progressive" is that it attempts to smuggle through a decision about the direction in which those steps should be taken without argument,

dreamingspire said...

Jonathan, indeed I'm alert to the use of 'progressive' as a bullying tactic. But also aware of 'social' as meaning muddling along when you should be designing and planning and expertly managing (Benn and the Meriden Motorcycle Co-operative come to mind; also the foolish 1968 merger of ICT - an expertly run business - with English Electric Computers - a failing organisation - to form ICL; and Blair's sofa government that seemed to combine the worst version of progressive with something vaguely socialist. What Clegg, Cable, Huhne, etc have been doing this last year shows brilliance in shepherding those who may be very competent at politics and the role of the state but (except I think for Francis Maude) amateurs at running the country.

Nick O said...

All broad labels are imprecise and as far as I can see, `progressive` is one of the more meaningful ones. I agree that it came from the left (though not necessarily within Labour). In my experience it tends to be used by people who no longer subscribed to the terms `left` and `right` as traditionally conceived, though it might be different among the chattering classes.

More seriously, I object to your characterisation of Sure Start centres, which seem to me to be a deliberately dishonest misrepresentation.

I can straight away think of two examples where our local Sure Start centre has fulfilled a function very much in keeping with the role you claim to espouse.

One concerns someone we know who felt that she needed help with parenting skills, probably as the role models she had were not of the best. She was provided with suitable help and it has clearly benefitted both her and her son.

I personally also benefitted from `Dad`s Days` at a Sure Start Centre. I experienced two bereavements - my father and my oldest friend - at around the time I became a father for the first time. The father`s group was invaluable to me and I would still go now if there was one in our area.

Just for the record, I`m very far from being a loyal Labour voter - in fact like most people I distrust politicians and pundits.

See if you can work out why.