Monday, May 18, 2020

GUEST POST Time for the Lib Dems to learn from social democracy

To revive their fortunes the Liberal Democrats need to focus on issues like  health, education and housing, argues George Kendall.

The authors of the 2019 election review have done an excellent job, courageously speaking uncomfortable truths.

Their most important point is that talking about what we like to talk about "has come at the expense of constantly thinking about what ‘normal’ people care about and building everything we do around trying to help."

The party’s Social Democrat Group has issued a statement to welcome this review. In it the group says:
To reconnect with many of the voters we have lost, we need to start talking about our social democratic values. To do that, our leadership needs to help the party reconnect with this too often forgotten half of our party’s founding heritage.
This is important, not just because it will help us electorally. Caring about what people think and being champions for their concerns is something we should do regardless of the electoral benefits.

Liberals are often very concerned about these issues too, and our manifesto contains excellent polices that are designed to reduce poverty, but other issues have taken more of our energy. Europe is not the only example.

A notorious example was during the Coalition, when we persuaded Osborne and Cameron to support a 5p charge on plastic bags in return for tightening benefit sanctions. In the end, the benefits sanctions were not tightened, but how was that deal ever considered? I fear it came from a belief that Lib Dem members cared more about charging for plastic bags than preventing a harsher benefit regime. Nor was it just the Coalition.

In some parts of the party, there is passionate debate about a sugar tax, both for and against. Issues like this are not unimportant, but surely we should divert some of this passion to improving the education of people from disadvantaged areas or the growing crisis of a lack of affordable housing.

This lack of passion on issues that concern the most vulnerable and the less affluent parts of the country has had an impact on our image.

Part of the problem may be that liberalism means different things to different people. Many Liberals work hard to understand and champion the concerns of those who are not affluent, but not all.

The Financial Times has described Osborne as "metropolitan and socially liberal”, yet George Osborne was responsible for draconian cuts to welfare immediately after the Tories won a majority in 2015.

I think the solution is to remember that we are not just liberals and our values are not just Liberal. We were formed as an equal partnership of liberals and social democrats, and our values and policies are deeply informed by social democratic thinking.

Inherent in social democracy is a concern about issues like health, education and housing. If we start to think of our party as being both liberal and social democratic, we will not be able to stop thinking about these issues. As we do so, we will start to care more about them, and that passion will come over to the electorate.

But being passionate about these issues is not enough. If we just use these issues as an argument to push an agenda we already believe in, we may fall into the trap of paternalism. Responding to their concerns involves more than designing policies we think will help. It would be only too easy to adopt a policy that affluent liberals like, but is despised by those it is intended to help. We also need to listen.

There are many barriers to our achieving this change. Our membership is now heavily skewed towards the affluent areas of the county. The same is true of our parliamentary party. Changing will be hard.

To fix this all of us need to make a deliberate effort to listen to the parts of the party that are not affluent and are not London and the South East. If the people we follow are predominately university educated, we should try to break out of our groupthink by following people and organisations that are engaged with those who are not.

Virus permitting, we should knock on doors in a nearby council estate outside an election period, to listen carefully to their concerns and their reaction to our polices. We should also listen to and give prominence to new groups like Liberal Democrats for the Heart of England and the Northern Liberal Network.

And we should listen more to people who have done the hard yards and have campaigned over many years for less affluent parts of the country. People like Andrew George in Cornwall and my colleague in the Social Democrat Group, Michael Mullaney, in the Midlands.

If you would like to help the Social Democrat Group in our work on this, do join us. You don’t need to think of yourself as a social democrat: iust as a Lib Dem who wants to help make the party more passionate about the needs of the less affluent parts of the country.

 George Kendall is acting chair of the Social Democrat Group. He writes in a personal capacity.


georgek said...

We in the Social Democrat Group feel very strongly about this. That is why three of the committee have simultaneously written about how we feel for three different sites.

See also:

Jim Millard said...

This is an excellent response and I support it. My one caveat, as a Lib Dem councillor in London, is that whilst I fully agree with you that it is very important to listen to areas that aren’t London and the South East (if we want to formulate policies that work for the whole country), at the same time that risks sounding like we’re making a characterisation of London as generally affluent whereas we must be aware that of course there are huge numbers of people living in poverty right here so we, as London councillors, need to listen to them and their needs are likely to be very similar to those in other large urban centres across the country, and can just as usefully feed into our policy making for the nation. The key point which I wholeheartedly support and which has the potential to be uniquely Lib Dem in that it aligns with key and enduring ideas about devolving power to the lowest possible level, is that of listening to those in need and asking them what their needs and concerns are, getting them literally to co-design policy.