Saturday, June 18, 2011

What is the difference between a social liberal and a social democrat?

Long ago,when I was a young activist, I fell in with the radical wing of the old Liberal Party. This was the time of the Alliance, and we were most like to use "social democrat" (or "soggy") as a term of abuse.

Time moves on and many of the same types (even some of the same people) now call themselves "social liberals". Fair enough, until you read in the Guardian today that Evan Harris (a former soggy, as it happens):
is speaking about the health reforms to 250 Liberal Democrat activists at the Social Liberal Forum (SLF) conference "Liberalism, Equality and the State" – a group that represents social democrats within the Lib Dems that have increasingly been concerned at the direction the coalition is taking.
I wish the SLF conference well today, but if the group is to have a worthwhile future they will have to provide an answer to the question I pose in the headline here.

Later. Thanks for the comments. The Independent has a (rather snide) report on yesterday's conference. It also sees the SLF as "social democratic". If nothing else, it has some work to do on its image.


Simon Titley said...

The best definition of social liberalism is provided by David Howarth in his essay in ‘Reinventing the State’, available online here:

Anyone reading this would be clear (a) what social liberalism is; and (b) that social liberalism does not share the statist, Fabian assumptions of social democracy.

Are there some former SDP members now rallying to the ‘social liberal’ flag, who have not shed all their statist assumptions? Undoubtedly. But the Guardian is wrong to describe the SLF as “a group that represents social democrats within the Lib Dems”. Most of the SLF represents the Liberal left. The fact that the SLF made a point last year of distancing itself from Richard Grayson suggests a liberal not a social democratic bias.

Matthew Harris said...

I was a (young) Liberal in the ancient times of the 1980s, and was very pro-Steel and pro-SDP, which, oddly, in the Owen days, possibly being more economically liberal, rather than less! I used to go to LINK events, despite not really being that type of Liberal...Jonathan raises an important question about social liberals and social democrats.

John Minard said...

I think D66, a self-proclaimed social liberal party has it about right: and here and here - they seem to be quite comfortable in their philosophy and well adjusted to the demands of the 21st century.

Having said that, the Liberal Party / Lib Dems are described as a social liberal party. The SLF is a reaction to the so-called Orange Bookers, and boosted in response to the coalition with the Tories. But really I think it's a sign that we have yet to fully embrace the future as a party.

The SDP was a very broad church indeed - from Lansley to Williams to Toynbee! Ex SDP'ers like myself didn't join necessarily because we were necessarily social democrats. Shirley Williams is a 'free' social democrat and rather more at home in this party than he would be in Labour.

Whilst I have nothing against 'ginger groups' I would really, really like to have seen this weekend kick off a forward looking Lib Dem summer school with a remit like: Social Justice In a Time of Austerity, and Liberating and Enabling People and Business.

A time to look forward and excite the debate. No the time to look back wistfully.

Simon Titley said...

@John Minard - On what basis do you assume that the SLF conference is a "time to look back wistfully"?

Look at the conference agenda:

John Minard said...

ref Simon Titley - I don't - I just hope the solutions are reflecting the starting point of today. And, even better if the energy was invested into a party-wide exercise.

Simon Titley said...

@John Minard - Again, on what basis do you assume that the SLF's energy is not "invested into a party-wide exercise"?

The whole point of the SLF is to influence the policy direction of the party as a whole.

At long last, groups of party members are spontaneously discussing politics instead of leafletting techniques. This is a healthy development for the party, I would have thought.

Jonathan Calder said...

David Howarth's essay is excellent, but it does not address the question I raise here.

The term "social democrat" does not appear in it once.

Simon Titley said...

@Jonathan - Howarth's essay does define social liberalism, which answers half your question.

For the other half, why not read Michael Meadowcroft's 1981 Liberator pamphlet, 'Social Democracy - Barrier or Bridge?':

Jonathan Calder said...

Simon: I have, of course, my own copy of Michael's pamphlet. Throughout it he talks about "Liberals" rather than "Social Liberals".

Like you I am delighted to see political debate breaking out in the Liberal Democrats. The fact that it is happening at the SLF is a condemnation of what we have allowed Conference to become.

But if people are going to sail under the flag of Social Liberalism they are going to have to some thinking about what the term does and does not include.

David said...

Jonathan you would, I think, have been delighted to hear the sources called upon during the conference - T H Green, L T Hobhouse and Keynes amongst them. There were some people from Compass and Richard Grayson who seemed unable to distinguish between Social Liberals and "Liberal Labour" but most people attending saw great differences between the two camps. Interestingly I'm sure the Compass people don't regard themselves as Social Democrats, at least not in the British sense. David Hall-Matthews, Chair of SLF sees the group not as a LibDem faction but the mainstream of the party. He said that one could be both an economic and a social liberal. I always liked Ralf Dahrendorf's summary of Social Democracy, "Roy Jenkins is a better yesterday". Too tired. More blogging when I've slept.

Dr Evan Harris said...

Firstly neither I nor the SLF used the term "social democrat" as used in the article, so that was the Guardian's work.

However there's an interesting question.

"Social liberal" is an unsatisfactory term in some ways because the "orange-bookers" are liberal on social issues (ie social liberals in that sense) in the main.

And many social liberals would consider themselves to be economically liberal in the sense of not being protectionist or anti-capitalist or even anti-market.

The difference between Orange-book-type economic liberal and so called social liberals is perhaps the relative priority we place on social justice (or socio-economic fairness).

I would say that most if not all social democrats (and by that I don't just mean ex-SDP members) in the Lib Dems are social liberals. But not all social liberal are original social democrats.

The Social Liberal Forum brings social democrats together with traditional Liberals who feel more strongly about the importance of social justice as a means and an end than "neo-classical economic liberals" (or Orange-bookers for short).

So perhaps Orange-book Liberal = Social Liberal minus social democracy.

All these terms are clunky and as you can see it from above I don't think Social Liberals should define ourselves solely by opposition to, or difference with, "Orange-book Liberals". But it would would be useful to hear what an Orange-booker feels distinguishes them from a social liberal and whether it is indeed the absence of a strong social democratic aspect.

Andrew Chamberlain said...

Speaking personally, I would say that the difference between the SLF and the Orange Bookers is that the former have a greater fear and mistrust of the private sector/romantic attachment to the public sector. This leads your average SLF member to adopting a more small-c conservative attitude to public service reform.

In terms of social justice etc., I don't think there's much between the two groups.

Chris Sams said...

I think it is easy to label and catogorise segments of the party and there is a bit of antipathy between "Social liberals" and "Orange bookers" but I think the best thing about our party is our ability to listen to all sections of a debate and come to a majority decission.

I joined the SLF because I do not agree with some of the Coalition policies, i.e NHS reform in its original state, and felt that the Liberal message could become lost in the clawing noise of the Conservative led majority.

Although I've not read all of my Orange book, it does have some intreaguing ideas on facets of Liberalism but the SLF is the voice of the people and of the membership and reminds the Parliamentary wing that even though they have had these ideas they have to be agreed on by the rest of the party at conference.

Joe Otten said...

I think Evan Harris accurately describes the relatively ill-defined division here.

When the SLF champions social justice, it is the mainstream, perhaps the whole of the party. When it says it cares more about social justice than the "Orange bookers" do, it is a narrow faction.

It seems to be there not to advance its own values within the party (because they are already there), but to accuse others in the party of not sharing them.

For the crime, perhaps, of being more open minded about how public services might be delivered.

Or for the crime, perhaps, of wanting to build a strong economy that can pay for public services, rather than borrowing to pay for them now and having to cut them again in the future when the money runs out.

But maybe you are right that you care more about social justice than I do. That I would strike a different balance to you between social justice and other values: liberty, the environment, civil society etc. I don't see the SLF engaging in this debate. Strike that balance here rather than there, because...?

Matthew Harris said...

Of course, "social liberals" were those Liberals in the early 20th century who believed that state action was needed to relieve grinding poverty, if people were to enjoy true liberty. "Social issues" has come to mean things like gay rights and abortion, enabling the likes of Michael Portillo to claim to be a social liberal a few years ago, which is arguably nonsense.

Social democracy was originally a revolutionary socialist movement (look at the Social Democratic Federation), but when a lot of Europe's (revisionist) social democrats became more moderate, remounced marxism, etc, 'social democrat' became a term for a moderate, centre-ground socialist.

The Liberal Party by 1981 had, in some ways, become something of a social democratic party, loosely defined, under the leadership of David Steel, even before the SDP was created. The Social Democrats in the SDP came from a variety of different political backgrounds, and had many different approaches to 'social democracy'. There were times when some in the SDP imagined that social democracy was whatever they declared it to be, regardless of how it had been defined historically by millions of other people.

A great many people in the SDP were more economically liberal, and more right-wing, than were most Liberals - remember Owen and the Owenites? Remember Owen's 'social market economy' and his acceptance of what some people called "a sub-Thatcherite agenda", for all that Owen is now dallying with Ed Miliband?

The Liberals' alleged unwillingness to embrace the Owenites' 'social market economy' was one reason that the Owenites refused to merge with the Liberals. Owenites argued that a merged party would be further to the left, and more Labour-inclined, than they (the Owenites) wanted.

So it's daft for anyone to say that today's Lib Dem social-liberals are the direct descendants of social democrats who joined the Lib Dems from the SDP. The SDP did not make the Liberals more 'social liberal'; they arguably brought more economic liberalism into our internal debate. Even Roy Jenkins, who was obviously not an Owenite, had been such a rigorous Chancellor in the 60s that Thatcher seriously considered making him her first Chancellor in 1979!

Liberal Neil said...

As others have demonstarted it is very difficult to answer the original question because, as with any political label, definitions of each vary widely.

Look at the wide range of parties around europe or the world that calle themsleves 'liberal' or 'social democrat'.

The important issue is not how one defines these terms, or where they differ, but what the purpose of the SLF is within the party at the current time.

The reason I helped establish the SLF was because I was concerned that the party leadership was drifting away from what I see as liberalism - in the tradition of Beveridge and Keynes - towards a more Thatcherite position on public sector reform etc. (I am not accusing anyone of being Thatcherite per se).

In doing so I think it represents a substantial number of members and activists, demonstarted by its rapid growth and the turnout for its first conference.

KelvinKid said...

I am rather discouraged by the atavistic tribalism demonstrated by Jonathan in his post. Although some of the comments are interesting the unthinking, dismissive nature of the original post set an unfortunately negative context for the debate.

Chris Nicholson said...

An interesting discussion and an important one. I greatly enjoyed the SLF Conference and as James Graham said in his opening remarks it is important that the party discusses philosophy,ideas and policy.
Chris Huhne was right in welcoming both the Orange Book and Reinventing the State as they were both valuable contributions to the ideas debate. The way in which "Orange Bookers" is sometimes used as a term of abuse within the party is not helpful in encouraging open debate.
I agree with David Hall-Matthews when he said at the conference that you can be both a social liberal and an economic liberal. I would classify myself as both.
I am concerned to promote social justice but I do not think that you necessarily need top down, centrally directed public sector provision of services to do that. As Simon Titley says, that is something which distinguishes a social liberal from a social democrat. Choice, competition and the private and voluntary sectors properly regulated, can have a significant role to play in achieving that aim. Public services, free at the point of use do not have to be provided by the public sector. This is party policy, following the Huhne Commission on public services 10 years ago - and we should remember that when considering government policies towards health but also other public services over the next few months.

mike cobley said...

I thought the SLF conference was very valuable, although I am dispirited to see that the consensus from the podium was generally pro-coalition. I am anti-coalition, obviously, for various reasons which have come to their disastrous fruition back in May. In the aftermath of the elections I would have thought that a phase of serious soul-searching and wisdom-through-doubt might take hold, but instead all that's been in evidence has been a kind of collective shrug at the verdict of our supporters along with stern urgings from the leadership to hold our nerve, steady as she goes, blah blah etc. Given that the Tory policies that we have helped put into practice have inflicted distress and uncertainty on the lives of so many, this heartless disregard for democratic judgement is quite frankly shocking. And before anyone jumps in with an 'oh, but we feel their pain' response, just realise that that just wont do any more. The outcome for this party of 12 months of collaboration with the enemy of social justice has been to create a sizeable chunk of the electorate who would rather chew their hand off than vote Liberal Democrat again. How is it that we have ended up as the most reviled of the three parties?

As for the difference between a social liberal and a social democrat, well there are differences, mainly to do with bedrock attitudes towards government provision and market mechanisms. Seems to me that all Liberals of one kind or another have this weakness for anything that smacks of free trade, yes, that magical free market pixie dust which the Gladstonian Liberals were mainlining at the turn of the century, not knowing that the 'free market' would change out of all recognition by the next century, a market dominated by global corporations so powerful they can buy and/or wreck entire nations. Yet Liberals just need to here Cameron croon the words free trade, and they go weak at the knees.

Then there's the matter of state and government, and the provision of public services, frequently to the poor and the disadvantaged and those unable to care or fend for themselves. Yes, its a fact that Liberals, in their DNA, have a visceral distrust of government (stemming from those 19th century struggles against the corrupt, overbearing Tory state). So when that distrust meets the siren song of the Tories and their neocon agenda the will to resist is just too feeble.

Social democrats - at least, the Jenkinsite social democrats - do not have a kneejerk antipathy towards the agency of government, nor are we easily hoodwinked or enthralled by that magical free market pixie dust; we can look at both in the light of experience, with a cold and practical eye, and point out that public services turned over to the private sector (forget Cameron's blabbing about voluntary sector involvement, which is just a red herring) will result in the further denigration of those at the bottom of the ladder, their hiving off to private sector provided services which are meagre and beneath basic, and ultimately an contemptible and wilfull increase in the sum total of human suffering. For a vision of what the private sector wants for us in the UK, we only need to look at the USA.

Which is why I have no hesitation in disagreeing with Chris Nicholson's comments above, that somehow you can achieve social liberal ends with economic liberal means - uh huh, Chris, yeah, but only on Bizarro World! If public services are provided by other than a democratically accountable government, I can assure you that they will soon cease to be free at the point of use.

As for the 'this is party policy' line, my response is yeah, but which party? The announcement from No 10 today makes it clear that Cameron is hell bent on turning public services into a voucher system free-for-all. This is not what I campaigned on for the last couple of decades, and it is not what the public wants. And if we as a party do not radically alter course, the electoral consequences will be dire.

Jonathan Calder said...


Blogger had decided you were a spammer for some reason, hence your comment taking a while to appear.

mike cobley said...

Ah, thats fine. Thanks for letting me know.

Richard Grayson said...

Simon - I didn't think the SLF 'distanced' itself from me last year on any issue of policy. Some of them were critical of the way I was encouraging dialogue with Labour, and we took a different view of the decision made in May 2010, but that is about tactics/strategy rather than principle. So I'm not sure how that can help to support your argument that having 'distanced' the SLF from me (who in any case has never used the label social democrat) they were going for a liberal rather than social democratic bias. That said, I very much agree with all the comments here and elsewhere that the Guardian was wrong to use 'social democratic' to describe the SLF.

On the issue of substance, I wrote an article in a 2007 special issue of the Political Quarterly called 'Social Democracy or Social Liberalism? Ideological Sources of Liberal Democrat Policy'. It was framed in that way because newspaper commentators had previously used 'social democracy' as a lable for the party's policy.

In the next post (I tried it here but it was too long) I'll some points I made in that piece as having some relevance to this posting.

Richard Grayson said...

And here's the extract:

“...there has been a clear difference over attitudes to the state. Put simply, Liberals are suspicious of it, while there is little evidence of social democrats fearing it at all. In The Future of Socialism there is certainly a strong sense of a mixed economy being the goal for social democracy on the basis that it would be the best economic system. There is also a wariness of state monopolies, but more on the basis of their ineffectiveness than any sense of the dangers inherent in monopolies. Meanwhile, there is specific rejection of any significant expansion of local government in public services, and nothing on constitutional reform.

“There is some evidence that the social democrats who left Labour to form the SDP embraced decentralisation. As Tudor Jones argues, even before the SDP was founded, social democrats such as John Mackintosh and David Marquand were making the decentralist case. Early SDP policy statements thus made regular comments on the need for democratic decentralisation, and David Owen was especially strong on the issue. Yet in making such arguments the reasoning was based on a concern with improving the effectiveness of government, rather than with fears over the power of the state. Social Liberals have taken a very different view.

Hobhouse was clear about the benefits of the state in advancing liberalism, arguing that `the ``positive'' conception of the state' not only did not `conflict with the true principle of personal liberty, but is necessary to its effective realisation'. He also argued that the state should have a wide-ranging role in ensuring that the education and health of `poorer classes' was taken care of, and that there should be help in mitigating unemployment and providing pensions. At its time this represented a bold expansion of the role of the state. Yet for Hobhouse it was accompanied by a view that the state should not ‘feed, house or clothe' the poor, as this might lead to dependency. Rather, the state needed to ensure that the economic conditions and basic welfare system would support individual initiative. As a result, he argued for `the extension of State control on one side' and `determined resistance to encroachments on another'. This view of the state recognised its positive potential, but also believed the state to have an inherently coercive nature.

Such a tone is not only absent from Crosland and later SDP policies, but also from more recent statements of social democracy. For example, for Anthony Giddens, the problem with the state is not the nature of its power, but the extent to which it can actually achieve its aims. Thus for Giddens, the imperative to `democratise' the state flows from the loss of public faith in state power, rather than any sense of the dangers of state power. There are echoes here of the SDP's approach to decentralisation as a
way of improving the effectiveness of government.

Yet Liberal Democrat policies have been profoundly influenced by a different conception of the state. Even when the party was campaigning most strongly on so-called `tax and spend' policies, the party was deeply concerned about reducing the power of the central state. Look back at any of the manifestos on which the Liberal Democrats had fought a general election and there is a strong presence of issues such as civil liberties and decentralisation…

Source: The Political Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 1, January-March 2007, pp. 33-34

Andy Mayer said...

Our contribution:

Richard Grayson said...

Some letter's relevant to this thread are in tomorrow's Guardian at: