Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Radical Liberalism: The Lost Political Tradition

The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy

Liberalism is one of the oldest political traditions. Its roots stretch back to 1688. Far from being a philosophy of the status quo, liberalism has a rich radical history. For centuries it was the philosophy of radical political and social change. It is time that the lost political tradition of radical liberalism was rediscovered.

The father of liberalism, John Locke, laid the foundations for the philosophy in his Second Treatise of Government in 1689. Government was only to be justified through the consent of the people and should any government violate the fundamental rights to life, liberty and property; then the citizenry had a right of revolution. Right from the beginning, there were two aspects of liberalism which often came into conflict with each other. These were the political aspects such as liberty, individual rights and government by consent; and the economic aspects such as private property, capitalism and a limited state. The political aspects became radical liberalism and the economic aspects became laissez-faire liberalism or modern day neoliberalism.

In 1776, the American revolutionaries took up arms against the British Empire. In the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers echoed John Locke by stating that man had unalienable rights such as "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Liberalism also inspired the French Revolution which began in 1789. The radical liberal philosopher, Thomas Paine wrote a staunch defence of the revolution in his "Rights of Man." Liberalism throughout the 18th century was seen as a radical revolutionary philosophy. In the name of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” the old aristocratic tyrannies were to be challenged and overthrown in favour of democratic governance.

Whose Land is it Anyway?

Liberalism's challenge to the power of the aristocracy took a different form at the end of the 19th century. Many nations in Western Europe had become republics or exchanged their autocratic monarchs for constitutional monarchs. In constitutional monarchies such as the United Kingdom, the aristocratic land owners drew their wealth and power from the land and as a result many had wealthy estates. It was this fact that made radical liberals such as Henry George support land value taxation.

The taxation of land became a popular movement especially within the British Liberal Party in the early 20th century. Working class Liberals supported land taxation as a means of shifting wealth away from the aristocratic land owners towards the working poor.

Social Liberalism and Freedom from Industrial Inequality

Throughout the 1800s, liberalism had been the philosophy of the Industrial Revolution. Liberals such as William Gladstone had pursued a policy of laissez-faire. A century earlier liberalism had proclaimed "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" now it appeared to be the philosophy of a capitalist industrial elite. Liberalism was derided by socialists as being a bourgeois ideology, which they thought should be overthrown and replaced by a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

It appeared that radical liberalism had run its course and that it would soon be replaced by socialism. It was at the turn of the last century that the radical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries became the social liberalism of the 20th century. Social liberal thinkers such as Thomas Hill Green and Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse argued that liberalism needed to promote social justice in order to help the industrial poor. Equality was therefore seen as a means to advance liberty. Social reform was needed to combat the tyranny of unrestrained industrial capitalism. As a result liberals began to support welfare policies and workers rights.

The British Liberal Party under Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George began to lay the foundations of the welfare state. In 1942, another social liberal William Beveridge published a report calling for social security from the cradle to the grave and founded the modern welfare state. Liberalism had therefore gone from being a philosophy of a laissez-faire elite to a philosophy with a genuine concern for the welfare of the poorest.

Power to the People

Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s the Liberal Party in Britain was seen as a political irrelevance by its opponents. It was during this period that the Liberal Party began to believe in placing power directly in people's hands. The Liberal Party leader, Jo Grimond placed great emphasis on cooperatives and workplace democracy. In the early 1970s a new philosophy began to emerge called "community politics." This was the legacy of a left wing libertarian group within the Young Liberals often referred to as "the Red Guards." Community politics emphasised the need for people to use power at the grassroots level. It was not just meant as a campaigning strategy but as a means of creating a more participatory democracy. The radical liberalism that had toppled regimes in America and France was now embarking on a peaceful democratic revolution in the way that power was used within local communities and in the workplace.

Neoliberalism: The Death of the Radical Tradition

If radical liberalism had been about anything it was about putting power into the hands of ordinary people and about holding the powerful to account. This changed in the 1980s as laissez-faire liberalism re-emerged in the form of neoliberalism. Early neoliberal politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan sought to unleash free market capitalism, privatise state assets, restrict workers’ rights and shrink the welfare state.

Far from bringing power closer to the people as neoliberal economists argued; in reality power shifted upwards towards global corporations. In an age of economic globalisation the ability of nation states to pursue welfare policies has been limited. Furthermore the ability to hold wealthy corporations to account is limited at best and non-existent at worst. Added to this global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank advocate and reinforce neoliberal philosophy. Neoliberalism is a reaction against the historic principles of radical liberalism and social liberalism.

Global Radical Liberalism

In the 21st century the principles of radical liberalism and social liberalism are needed to mitigate neoliberal globalisation. Radical liberalism sought to tackle unaccountable power. A new democratic globalisation based on radical liberalism is needed to hold the global corporate elite to account. Global institutions underpin contemporary economic globalisation. Therefore new global institutions will be needed to wrestle back democratic sovereignty from global corporations and the Washington Consensus. Hopefully, global radical liberalism will in time help to replace global neoliberalism.


Radical liberalism might date back to the end of the 17th century; however it is needed once again in the 21st century. Transnational corporations are the unaccountable kingdoms of the 21st century. In the age of globalisation; the lost political tradition of radical liberalism needs to be rediscovered.

Friday, 19 September 2014

After the Referendum: Now is the Time for Radical Political Reform

“A revolutionary moment in the world's history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.” – William Beveridge

The Scottish Referendum

Scotland has just voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom by 55% to 45%. The Scottish referendum has been the most extra ordinary display of democracy and political engagement. The turnout figure of 85% in itself has broken all modern records for British electoral turnouts. Now the UK will never be the same again. Britain must see radical political reform in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum.
                                                              
Time for a Constitutional Convention

This radical political reform must come across the United Kingdom. The move towards Scottish Home Rule is now inevitable, but power must also be shifted to Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. Britain is on its way to becoming a federal country. In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, the constitutional settlement of the UK must be renewed. This can only be achieved by establishing a Constitutional Convention.

The Constitutional Convention should aim to disperse power away from Westminster towards all the other parts of the UK, but it should also make British politics fit for the 21st century. England is one of the most centralised nations in Europe; therefore it is necessary to give power to England on a regional basis. This would take account of the English North-South divide. It could take the form of Regional Assemblies or the form of empowered English city regions and empowered English counties. 

In time, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions should have full federal powers. This would leave the Federal Parliament in Westminster to have authority over issues such as foreign affairs, defence, immigration, national security, foreign development, international trade, Constitutional affairs, national economic policy and national welfare policy. The states of a federal Britain would have control over the other policy areas.

The cornerstone of this federal system would be a formal written constitution accompanied by a Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights should not only protect political and civil rights, but also social rights. Social rights such as a right to free health care, a right to a free education, a right to have access to social security, a right to join a trade union and the right to be paid a fair wage. When scare stories about federalism are told they usually refer to the inequality of the American system. A federal Britain would not be viable without the very commitment to social rights that the American Constitution is lacking. As a centre-left liberal I could accept nothing less.

A British Constitutional Convention should also determine whether it is acceptable to have a second chamber made up of aristocrats, bishops and political appointees. Surely, the House of Lords will have to be elected and accountable to the British people. This also raises questions about what voting system should be used to elect the Houses of Parliament. First past the post is clearly an outdated and unfair voting system a move towards a more proportional system such as the single transferable vote (STV) is much more desirable.

Finally, one of the outstanding successes of the Scottish referendum debate was the decision to give 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote. The momentum behind votes at 16 is now unstoppable. 16 and 17 year olds should be fully enfranchised and entitled to vote in time for the next general election in 2015.
                                               
A Voice for the Disenfranchised

            Thousands of voters who had never voted before were engaged by the Scottish referendum debate. These were not just 16 and 17 year olds but thousands of adults who have never been willing to vote before. It is vital that politicians from across Britain realise that they need to engage with a disenfranchised minority who do not believe that the main parties represent them. This is most notably the case in poorest areas of Britain. A process of federalisation and constitutional reform is certainly a means to engage more people in politics. Hopefully the decentralisation of power will make politicians at the grassroots level more responsive to the concerns of those disenfranchised voters who feel they haven’t got a stake in our political system.

            People should avoid the dog whistle politics of English nationalism coming from UKIP and the Tory backbenchers. Nationalism only seeks to divide people. It is up to the progressive parties namely the Liberal Democrats and Labour to oppose this nationalism and actively seek to engage with disillusioned working class voters.

The Liberal Hour has come               
                                                                   
As of this morning, political reform is in the mainstream. MPs of all the main parties are talking about reforms to the British Constitution. What is a liberal party for if not to champion political reform. The Liberal hour has truly arrived. The Liberal Democrats for so long have been the masters of political reform and they must lead the debate to come. Liberal Democrats are the vanguard of constitutional reform; now is the time for a more liberal and a more democratic Britain to emerge.

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to overhaul the entire British constitution and it is an opportunity that the Liberal Democrats cannot miss. For decades Lib Dems have been discussing constitutional reform now it is being discussed at the highest level. There may not be another opportunity like this again for several more decades. Hence it is up to senior Lib Dems to ensure that Britain makes a bold break from the past and that British politics is fit for the 21st century.

It is now very likely that in the 2015 general election the West Lothian question (also called the English question) will be a key issue. The Lib Dems must answer this question with a single word: federalism. The Lib Dems must position themselves as the party of federalism. Political reform and federalism must be a central pillar of the 2015 General Election campaign.

The Last 24 Hours


            After the last 24 hours no one can say that British politics is boring. Scotland might have voted to stay a part of the United Kingdom but the whole British Constitution is now up for review. The Scottish referendum which was so long represented the possibility of breaking up the UK now has the potential to renew it. Only Liberal Democrats can lead this change because we have political reform in our blood. The Scottish referendum reinvigorated democracy in Scotland; now let's reinvigorate democracy across the rest of the UK.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Why I Hope Scotland Remains a Part of the UK


The Progressive Tradition of Scotland, the North and Wales


Next week on 18th September, the people of Scotland will have the ability to decide the future of the United Kingdom. In the Referendum next week, the people of Scotland get to choose if they want independence from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The debate between the Separatist Yes campaign and the Unionist No campaign is getting increasingly heated and the opinion polls show that the campaigns are neck and neck.

As someone who lives in the North of England, I have been reluctant to get involved in the Scottish Referendum debate. However, I am passionate that Scotland stays within the United Kingdom and says No to Scottish independence. My reasons for wanting Scotland to remain a part of the UK are not formed out of a misguided sense of British nationalism or out of any strong love for the British establishment in Westminster. To me, as a Northerner; Scotland, the North and even Wales share a common progressive tradition.


            This progressive tradition is the shared political culture of Scotland, the North and Wales. All three of these areas have a strong historic commitment to public services, the redistribution of wealth, a strong education system, and a National Health Service that is free at the point of use. This is reflected in the strong political support for the Labour Party and considerable support for the Liberal Democrats, especially in North Scotland, Cumbria and Central Wales. It is therefore not surprising that both Yes and No campaigners have sought to capitalise on this left wing political heritage in Scotland.

Shared Industrial Economy


            The historic foundation of this progressive tradition is a result of the shared industrial economy of Scotland, the North and Wales. These areas fostered the working class movement and the campaign for welfare provision. Great industrial cities like Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Cardiff were the economic backbone of Great Britain. Together these cities (and many other areas besides) literally built a modern nation. Often throughout British industrial history English workers have defended their Scottish and Welsh colleagues. Often the same was true of Scottish workers as well. It was consciously understood that it was the industrial link that bound Scotland, the North and Wales together. This industrial backbone defined and maintained Great Britain.


Democracy, War, Welfare and Healthcare

            It is often questioned by Scottish Nationalists, whether Scotland has benefited from the union at all. Without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest benefit to Scotland of the union has been the welfare state and the National Health Service. Scotland wouldn't have a welfare state or an NHS without the United Kingdom. Scots, Welsh and Northerners struggled together in the battle to achieve democracy for workers and for women almost a century ago. A few decades later, people from across the UK were struggling to defend democracy against the tyranny of the Nazis during the Second World War. No doubt many English soldiers died in the arms of their Scottish comrades and vice versa. There can be no greater display of the brotherhood between these nations than that commitment to defend democracy.

            It was during the Second World War that an English radical Liberal, William Beveridge founded the welfare state. As for the NHS, it was famously the product of the radical Welsh Labour Health Minister, Nye Bevan who created the best health service in the world. Ever since Scotland has benefited from these English and Welsh political institutions and they have no doubt benefited millions of Scots for decades.

Thatcher’s Legacy

            There is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher has had a strong impact on modern Scotland. Her right wing policies devastated Scottish industry and devastated many of the poorest communities in Scotland. This is viewed by the Nationalists as the awful result of being in the union with England and being betrayed by an English Prime Minister. How dare the Scottish Nationalists make out that it was only Scotland that suffered at the hands of Thatcherism; Thatcher devastated the industry of the North and the industry of Wales undermining many of the poorest communities in the process. Ask the people of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Wrexham and South Wales, whether Thatcher only undermined Scotland. For that matter ask many people in the poorest London Boroughs or parts of the Midlands whether Thatcher only undermined Scotland. Thatcherism has had a negative impact on many of the poorest people across the UK. Thatcherism has undermined the industrial base across the UK. It is not just a problem for Scotland.


United Against The Right

            Scotland, the North and Wales have been united through the fact that they have suffered immensely from right wing politics and the economics of Thatcherism. We are a progressive family and only together can we succeed in achieving a more progressive society. How dare the Scottish Nationalists seek to abandon the poorest communities in the North and in Wales. Scottish independence will absolutely undermine the progressive cause in Northern England and Wales. The politics of England and Wales will shift to the right as the Conservative Party and UKIP grow stronger. Scottish independence will weaken the cause of social justice in England and Wales and it will no doubt strengthen the right wing forces which oppose social justice.


            Of course, the SNP state that with independence they can be "free" from the Conservative Party. The truth is that an independent Scotland would still face the encroachment of a free market economy. Every major democracy in the Western world has both a major centre-left progressive party and a major centre-right conservative party. Scotland would be no different. Only together can Scotland, the North and Wales further the cause of progressive centre-left politics. Scotland is a thorn in the side of the Tories. In the absence of Scotland, the political prospects of the Tories would be strengthened because as Labour would lose 40 MPs, and the Lib Dems would lose 11 MPs, the Tories would only lose one MP.


A Federal Family of Nations


            The United Kingdom is a family of four nations; Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is vital that Scotland gets home rule federal powers. Gordon Brown has begun to outline moves to enact Scottish home rule in the event of a No vote. Scotland deserves and Scotland needs federalism. Federalism will ensure that Scotland has the power and autonomy it needs but within the security and stability of the United Kingdom. I hope in time that federal powers are also granted to the regions of England as well as for Wales and Northern Ireland. Federalism will give Scotland the political respect it requires without the economic risks of separation.


Scotland stay with your Progressive Brothers and Sisters in Northern England and Wales


           As a Northerner, I will be utterly heartbroken to see Scotland leave the United Kingdom. It is not just a simple matter of geography or misplaced patriotism, but a real sense that together Scotland, the North and Wales can achieve a fairer society for everyone. Together we can champion the progressive politics that will redistribute wealth, defend workers rights, and ensure a strong education and health service. Together these three areas make up a progressive family. I don't want to see the Conservatives strengthened in England and Wales because of the political ambitions of Alex Salmond. I don't want to see the poorest people in England and Wales undermined because Scotland is no longer there to stand in solidarity with us. I don't want to see the rise of right wing English nationalism just because of an equally misguided sense of Scottish nationalism. Nationalism only seeks to divide; progressive politics only seeks to unite.


            The British family of nations has a great future and I'm sure that Scotland, Northern England and Wales will have a great future ahead of them but only if they stay united in their common progressive tradition. Together we built modern Britain. Together we achieved democracy. Together we fought side-by-side during two World Wars. Together we created the welfare state and the NHS. Together we stood against Thatcherism. United, Scotland, Northern England and Wales will stand; divided, our societies will fall.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Post-Thatcher Consensus: A Critique


On the face of it British politics has never been more interesting. The government is currently run by an increasingly awkward coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. There remains a considerable amount of unease within the Labour Party towards Ed Miliband’s style of leadership. In Scotland, we are only months away from a decisive referendum on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom. And to top it off across Europe, we are seeing the rise of the populist right embodied in Britain by Nigel Farage and UKIP.


Surely there hasn't been a more interesting time to be observing British politics. That is until you asked the question where is the argument for genuine change coming from? The only answers seem to be being provided by an unholy mixture of separatists and right-wing nationalists. The rise of nationalism whether in the guise of separatism or populism is concerning enough; but this misses the bigger picture of widening inequalities.
 

What of the main three parties, where are their arguments for change? With the exception of the Lib Dem commitment to political reform; genuine change seems thin on the ground. All three of Britain's main government parties subscribe to the political and economic consensus that began during the government of Margaret Thatcher. This is the consensus of Thatcherism and its offshoots; a group of philosophies which many academics refer to as neoliberalism. Thatcherite watchwords like the free market, privatisation, deregulation, austerity, competitiveness, welfare reform and fiscal discipline have now become commonplace. In a nutshell, this consensus boils down to the preference of private over public, the corporate over the community, self concern over social concern and the ability of the free market over the ability of the state.


This is the consensus to which all three of Britain's main political parties now subscribe to. Obviously, it was the Conservative Party in the late 1970s that first adopted a free-market approach under Margaret Thatcher. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that the Labour Party adopted the post-Thatcher consensus. Tony Blair under a programme called "the third way" sought to mix the competing economic views of Thatcherism and social democracy. As for the Lib Dems, they have consistently supported social liberalism since 1906; however in 2004 "The Orange Book" was published, which sought to fuse the social liberalism of the left with the economic liberalism of the right. Orange book liberalism has been in the ascendancy within the Lib Dems since the resignation of Charles Kennedy in 2006. The offshoots of Thatcherism can also be found in aspects of the SNP; whereas UKIP is an overtly Thatcherite party.


So what have been the consequences of 35 years of Thatcherism? Firstly there has been a widening gap between the rich and poor. In Britain this is epitomised by the fact that almost 1,000,000 people have had to use a food bank in order to feed themselves in the last year. Furthermore there is a widening regional gap between the former industrial North and the business orientated London and the South East. At the same time property price bubbles have been allowed to develop due to reckless bank lending. In 2008, this led to a global financial crisis, which came against a backdrop of under-regulation in the banking system and as a result a bailout of the banking industry was required.


While regulations were being curved for the rich, they were only increasing for the poor. Welfare-to-work programmes have been on the rise, whereby welfare claimants for jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) will have to work to continue getting their benefits after nine months. There have also been stricter rules, tougher penalties and closer scrutiny placed on the welfare claimed by the poorest especially in relation to unemployment. Welfare reforms such as the “bedroom tax” have led to the housing benefit for those in social housing being reduced if they have one or more spare rooms. Such welfare reforms have been a major cause in rising inequality and the rise of food poverty in Britain. This has been accompanied by a vile political discourse, which vilifies people who claim benefits. This is being conveyed through the media who target the poor, the unemployed and the disabled with sensationalist headlines and television programmes like “Benefits Street.”


Youth unemployment is a serious problem in today's Britain. The country still has almost 1,000,000 young people unemployed this is the equivalent of almost one in five young people being without a job. Young people feel alienated from politics and from society due to a whole raft of broken promises and welfare cuts that have impacted on them. Even the Labour Party intends to cut JSA for the under 22s who do not get training or qualifications. No politician of any political party seems to be willing to defend the rights of young people let alone tackle youth unemployment. From 1945 until the late 1970s, governments had a profound role in tackling unemployment. Such Keynesian policies like full employment have become a thing of the past under Thatcherism. It is this neglect of social policy that has undermined almost 1,000,000 young people and is denying them of having a more secure future.


Before Margaret Thatcher came into office it is true that income tax levels were incredibly high and that in some respects the trade unions were too powerful. However, the situation has gone from one extreme to the other. Today, the wealthiest are taxed less than 50% and there are no measures to tax the property assets of the wealthy. As for the trade unions, from being too powerful few decades ago they are too weak today. Any democracy needs a functioning trade union movement; however wage levels for a decade have remained relatively stagnant, partly due to the absence of an effective trade union movement.


The reach of the free market seems to be never ending. A whole range of industries were privatised in the 1980s and 1990s, from telecommunications, to utilities, to the railways. The free market has also had an increasing influence in public service provision. In the NHS, private companies are increasingly being relied on to provide health care services and competitiveness has been placed at the heart of the NHS. It is worth remembering that the first concern of a private company is to create profit. The profit motive is the primary motive and any other motive whether it is caring for patients, educating school pupils or delivering local services will only ever be secondary.


Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the post-Thatcher consensus has been the political disengagement of many people with the political process. Too many people, especially from traditional working class communities, no longer feel represented by the views of the mainstream parties and are in danger of falling foul of the siren voices on the populist right. Why is no one making the case that people are facing such economic difficulties not because of immigration, but because of entrenched inequalities, or the under-regulated banking industry, or the lack of a Keynesian solution from government, or through the lack of an effective trade union movement.


Where is the progressive challenge to the current status quo going to come from? There is a whole wealth of centre-left social liberal and social democratic groups and intellectuals, who are laying the foundations for a potential progressive alternative to the post-Thatcher consensus. Internal party groups such as the Social Liberal Forum and Compass are becoming factories for new progressive ideas in order to challenge the worn out status quo. There are also a wealth of academics on the moderate left from which progressive inspiration could be drawn from, such as, John Rawls, Thomas Piketty, Will Hutton, Paul Krugman, Ha-Joon Chang and Roberto Unger.


The post-Thatcher consensus has left Britain more economically unequal, more politically disengaged and more socially insecure than when it began. It has centralised political and economic power in Westminster and the City of London. The great democratic deficit between working people and the company management needs to be bridged through a mixture of co-operatives, worker representation on company boards, worker share ownership and renewed trade union engagement. There also needs to be a serious attempt to redistribute wealth and to reduce the scope of the free market in social policy. Finally, there needs to be a Keynesian solution focusing on tackling unemployment, the looming housing crisis and the ever present threat of climate change.


In some respects Thatcherism and the post-Thatcher consensus has tested the fabric of our society, our economy and our democracy almost to breaking point. It represents a tired and worn out consensus, that doesn't benefit millions of people in Britain. Furthermore it has neutralised the ideological competition that makes democracy a viable concept. The three main political parties must break away from representing fifty shades of Thatcherism. Britain needs a new consensus; the freedoms, rights and opportunities of the most disadvantaged in society depend upon it.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

What is Liberalism For?

What is liberalism for? This was a question that the Liberal Party began to ask itself at the end of the 19th century. Following the defeat of the Liberal Party in the 1895 general election, it became clear that the Liberals had to examine their guiding philosophy. Liberalism, the radical ideology that had sought at the start of the 19th century to provide everyone with liberty and rights had ended the 19th century looking out of touch and unable to address the problems which people faced. The one time philosophy of radical reform looked uneasy and unable to acknowledge the vast inequalities that had emerged within industrial society. The defeat of 1895 helped the Liberals move away from the stale status quo of Gladstonian classical liberalism and towards the philosophy of new liberalism, what today would be called social liberalism (“The New Liberalism” The Liberal Democrat History Group http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/item_single.php?item_id=85&item=history). The transition to social liberalism enabled the Liberal Party in the early 1900s to become the champions of social reform; by laying the foundations of the welfare state, securing workers rights, and by redistributing wealth through taxation.

Today in 2014, it has become necessary for British Liberals to ask themselves once again, what is liberalism for? For almost 100 years social liberalism had been the dominant political discourse within the Liberal Democrats. In 2004 however a new brand of liberalism emerged in the Orange Book. Orange Book liberalism embodied a fusion between the social liberalism of the left and the old Gladstonian classical liberalism of the right. The answer according to the Liberal Democrat Orange Bookers was to promote a brand of liberalism that was directly in the centre of the political spectrum. The Orange Book narrative was that of a pragmatic party of the radical centre, hence the Liberal Democrats would be a party of power with the opportunity to form coalitions with either the Conservatives or Labour. A situation not too dissimilar to the German Free Democrats (FDP), who had up until recently assumed the de-facto status of being an almost permanent party of coalition government. While social liberalism seeks to foster social justice in order to enable the individual freedom of the disadvantaged, Orange Book liberalism seems to defend the status quo at best and at worst promote policies that undermine fairness and social justice.



The liberalism that is currently on offer to the British electorate is bland and seems to lack any radical and progressive perspectives for social change. Phrases such as social justice, tackling inequality, community politics, public services and redistribution have almost become dirty words or perhaps even more concerning, they have become in the minds of some "anti-liberal” words. Radical centrist liberalism far from being radical has become a defender of the status quo. Far from removing the Liberal Democrats from the traditional left-right axis, radical centrism has placed the party right in the middle of it. The Liberal Democrats should be a party of change willing to tear down the status quo, not propping it up through endless coalitions and bland politics. Currently British liberalism is in danger of being a valueless no-man’s land which is neither able to attract voters from the left or the right. This fact has been shown through the disastrous results for the Liberal Democrats in the 2014 Local and European Elections.
 


Whatever happened to the philosophy that guaranteed people's freedoms and wanted to hold the powerful to account through political reform? Whatever happened to the philosophy that created the welfare state? Whatever happened to the philosophy that sought to put power in the hands of ordinary people, while ensuring that the environment was protected for the next generation? Where is the Liberal mission in 2014? The reality is all of these aspects encompass the modern need for liberalism. The liberalism that actively enhances people's lives today while protecting their future for tomorrow. Liberalism (especially social liberalism) is needed to combat Labour authoritarianism, Conservative free market policies and the rising tide of right wing populism.



Liberalism must exist to address the concerns of 21st-century Britain. There are massive wealth and power inequalities in British society. The burden of austerity has fallen too heavily on the poorest, the most vulnerable and those who depend on vital public services. Unemployment is still a massive issue facing Britain, especially amongst young people. There are massive regional inequalities throughout the country with London and the South East seemingly benefiting from a recovery, while the rest of the country lags behind. This recovery is one that is being fuelled by a dangerous housing bubble at the same time when Britain needs hundreds of thousands of additional new homes every year. Many people continue to work in a situation of job insecurity ,where wages are low, future prospects are uncertain, and trade union activity and collective redress is limited at best and non-existent at worst. This is all set against the backdrop of the increasing encroachment of the free market economy into the NHS and the education system. Finally, looming over the world like a shadow is the imminent threat of global climate change. The Liberal Democrats must develop policies to combat these hardships facing many people in Britain today.



What is liberalism for? Liberalism is for freedom, social justice, local empowerment and the future. The status quo is failing millions of people across Britain and the Liberal Democrats need to challenge it. Those Liberal Democrat politicians who are not driven by this sense of mission, by the drive for change, those who forget the history and values of liberalism will surely face the wrath of a disillusioned electorate. Liberalism exists to help the people not to cling onto power; fellow Liberal Democrats we forget this fact at our own peril.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Why I want to stand for the Social Liberal Forum Council


           There are many challenges that face Britain today. Social and economic inequalities are still rife in society from people having to use food banks, to the issue of low wages and the problems caused by welfare reforms. Britain needs to rediscover its spirit of social justice, and its concern for the most disadvantaged members of society. When I first got interested in politics it was over the issues of civil liberties and my opposition to the War in Iraq. There was only ever one party that spoke to me on these issues and that truly inspired me, the Liberal Democrats. But that's not all, in the mid-2000s, the Lib Dems were the only main party willing to stand up for social justice in the face of the social hardships ignored by New Labour and caused by the Conservatives that came before them.


            Today, four years into the Coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, that spirit of social justice may seem like a world away. The Coalition has adopted some progressive policies such as raising the income tax threshold, the pupil premium and most recently free school dinners for the most disadvantaged pupils. Although there have also been some regressive policies such as the NHS reforms, welfare reforms such as the “bedroom tax” and an economic strategy that has placed too much of the burden of austerity on the poorest.

 

            What is often missed by media commentators is the excellent work done by members of the Social Liberal Forum in standing up for the traditional social liberal values that the Lib Dems have had for over a century. The SLF has been vital in calling for reforms to the government's economic policy to ensure that it focuses more on a house building stimulus and taxing the wealthy and less on slash and burn cuts to public services. Furthermore, they have consistently backed Lib Dem motions opposing the NHS reforms, opposing food poverty, backing a living wage, opposing the bedroom tax and being critical of the approach to free schools. If the spirit of social justice is to be found anywhere within the Liberal Democrats; it is to be found within the Social Liberal Forum.


            The Social Liberal Forum is on the verge of having elections to its ruling council and I am very eager to run for a position on that council. I have always been somebody who has proudly stood on the left of politics and I firmly believe that the Liberal Democrats are at heart a centre-left party. The SLF represent the historic centre-left traditions of the Lib Dems. As someone who has always been committed to social justice; I am very proud to be a member of the SLF. It is vital that we stand up for the poorest and most disadvantaged people in our country, many of whom lack a voice and are alienated by political parties who turn a blind eye to poverty and inequality.


Some might say that there's no place for an advocate of social justice in the Liberal Democrats today. However, I understand my Liberal history; the Liberal history of social liberalism that goes back to 1906. In 1942, the social security report by the Liberal Party social reformer, William Beveridge ensured that there was a national minimum, beneath which no one would be allowed to fall. The defining feature of social liberalism is the belief that social justice can enable the individual to reach their full potential. In this regard, Beveridge’s welfare state has done more to free people than any other institution since the establishment of democratic governments. The Beveridge report has been fundamental in freeing people from poverty, unemployment, ill-health and a lack of education. I am very proud of the history of great social liberals such as William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes and David Lloyd George as well as the great Lib Dem titans of British politics such as Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Charles Kennedy. This history proves that the Liberal Democrats are a centre-left party of social justice and social liberalism. And if I get elected I would hope to continue that tradition.


There are many problems facing Britain today and social liberalism has many of the answers to them. Social liberalism rejects the false choice of choosing between promoting liberty or tackling inequality; simply put you cannot achieve one without the other. A more just society is a more free society. To be free from poverty is just as important as being free from the authoritarianism of the state. You cannot truly enjoy freedom if your capacity to achieve and develop is held back by poverty and inequality.


Hence, the powers of the state must be kept in check; but also there must be a progressive alternative to the free market consensus of the last thirty-five years. Social liberals must promote a living wage, land taxation, British federalism, community politics and workplace democracy especially through cooperatives. Above all, social liberals must aim to give a voice to the poor and the disadvantage and ensure that they have a stake in British society again. A stake that free market economics has denied them.


If I get elected to the Social Liberal Forum Council, I will stand up for social freedoms, social justice, the rights of the poor and the rights of people with disabilities (of which I am one). I aim to represent the Liberal Democrats’ historic centre-left principles of social liberalism. Overall, I hope that the Liberal Democrats can be a party that can once again stand up to injustice. This can only be done through the great work of the Social Liberal Forum; great work to which I hope to contribute. I hope that

Monday, 7 April 2014

For The Sake of Democracy, We Need Big Ideas, Re-engagement and Progressive Visions


Is this what the end of history looks like? Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History”, which was developed at the end of the Cold War, represented the triumph of free market western democracy over communism, fascism and feudalism. Three decades after the free market revolution of Margaret Thatcher, our political system in Britain has been transformed. For domestic British politics, the end of history seems to have embodied the triumph of neoliberalism over democratic socialism, social democracy, social liberalism and one nation conservatism. The democratic battle between the Keynesianism of the left and the free market of the right seems to be over in Britain. One of Margaret Thatcher's most famous free market slogans was "there is no alternative" a phrase that was often referred to by the acronym of TINA. Thirty five years since Thatcher came to power and in the age of austerity; TINA still dominates the political discourse in Britain. This is bad both for Britain and for our democracy.

 

Since Thatcher's government, we have seen a steady hollowing out of party politics. Politicians today take great pride in the fact that they have no guiding philosophy or ideology. Valueless pragmatism is the name of the game in 21st century politics. It is very common to hear politicians attack their political opponents for being "ideological" or "political." The person who embodied the hollowing out of politics more than any other was the New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. New Labour used focus groups to develop policies as well as having a great emphasis on the need to spin and manage the party's media presence. Blair no doubt saw ideology as a relic of the past that surely must have died out at the end of the 20th century. But far from phrases such as ideological or political being insults; isn’t it these things, what are supposed to fuel democracy? Democracy should be a politically driven competition between different ideas and philosophies.

 

Today the main political parties in Britain all represent different versions of the neoliberal consensus of the last three decades. A kind of fifty shades of neoliberalism. The Conservatives were obviously the first party to adopt the neoliberal framework as Thatcher went to war with the one nation Tory old guard within her own party. This was followed by Tony Blair co-opting the Labour Party into the neoliberal consensus. The one-time party of socialism and social democracy became staunch defenders of the free market and many public service reforms under a programme called “the third way.” Far from being an alternative to traditional social democracy or the free market; the third way in reality represented a slightly more moderate version of the policies begun by Margaret Thatcher. Finally, the Liberal Democrats have increasingly adopted free market based policies influenced by the neoliberal Orange Book. The Orange Book has gone against the grain of the Lib Dems’ philosophy of social liberalism; which has been dominant in the party since 1906. Orange Book liberalism has seen its zenith under the coalition with the Conservatives, with many contributors to the Orange Book holding senior posts in the Coalition Government.

 

In 2014, apathy in British politics as well as mistrust of politicians is very high. These factors are probably partly influenced by the fact that there is no discernible difference between the philosophies of the main three parties. No senior politician in Britain today seems to articulate a real vision of the future. Clement Attlee had his "New Jerusalem", Margaret Thatcher had her "Property Owning Democracy" but where is the big political vision of 2014 coming from? Where is the essence of democracy, the ideas and the visions?

 

Politicians of all political stripes need to re-engage with the people, and perhaps no group needs more engagement than the working classes. Over the past 20 years, the working classes have been increasingly alienated by British politics as politicians from across the spectrum have sought the votes of Middle England. There is a danger that this gap in the focus of the main parties may be filled by extremist parties. In particular, the right wing nationalist party, UKIP are seeking to reach out to disenchanted working class voters. UKIP are exploiting the political void left by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Surely, the main three parties cannot abandon many working class voters to UKIP and the politics of fear. The political mainstream need to invoke the spirit of Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan and David Lloyd George; politicians who inspired millions of working class people to get involved in politics. Whoever can successfully reach out and harness the working class vote will determine the outcome of general elections.

 

A second group that politicians desperately need to re-engage with are young people. The voters aged between 18 and 25 represent the literal future of Britain and its democracy. Yet the same age group is suffering immensely in the current economic climate. One in five young people are unemployed. That's a youth unemployment rate of 20%. The average rate of unemployment during the years of the Great Depression was 17%. We must face the reality of the situation that in this country we have mass youth unemployment. This is an entire generation of people who feel unable to contribute to our economy and unable to take the first step on the job ladder. Politicians are often (quite rightly) concerned with the issues of older voters, however many young people feel neglected by our current politicians and feel turned off by politics in general. This is going to be very bad if fewer people have faith in politics and if young people do not think it can make a real difference to their lives.

 

A healthy democracy is one that flows with new political ideas. Big ideas, guiding philosophies and political passion will re-engage many voters who have been turned off by the politics of recent decades and will ensure a revival of democratic participation. The Liberal Democrats need to reassert their historic social liberal philosophy over the Orange Book. Whereas, Labour need to rediscover progressive politics. In fairness to the Conservatives, they are the only party in British politics that are able to follow their true conservative ideology as it is the only one that naturally seeks to expand the reach of the free market economy. Thus modern conservatism is the only ideology that naturally seeks to advance neoliberalism.

 

We need to bring back the battle of ideas and with it politicians who seek to make a real difference, according to their own set of ideals and philosophies. The strength of our democracy depends upon it. Britain desperately needs a progressive alternative to the neoliberal consensus, and it is ultimately up to the Liberal Democrats and Labour (and perhaps even some Conservatives) to provide one. Politicians must be proud to be political again. Politicians need to have a defining vision. But above all in the age of austerity what people really need is hope. Hope for a better, fairer future for them and their friends and families. Hope that will encourage them to become active in our democracy again. Because if Britain's politicians are not willing to revive democracy and engage many of those alienated in recent years; then the future of politics will indeed be hopeless, especially from the perspective of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society. For British democracy to remain strong, we need to revive big ideas, we need to re-engage with alienated groups and we need progressive visions to help everyone in society; not just the ultra-wealthy.