Social Liberal Forum Conference, 2015

Yesterday I went to the Social Liberal Forum conference, held at the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch.

It’s the first time I’ve attended an SLF event, and to be honest I was slightly apprehensive that it would be like a more extreme version of Lib Dem conference.

I needn’t have worried. Although as usual I was initially paralysed by my tendency to shyness, as people arrived things quickly warmed up and conversation began to flow. It was particularly good to meet people with whom I’ve previously enjoyed useful and insightful interaction on Twitter or via blogs, such as Nick Barlow and Kelly-Marie Blundell.

Charles Kennedy and Claire Tyler

The day began with a tribute to Charles Kennedy by Naomi Smith, chair of SLF. Unusually, but appropriately, we were encouraged to express our appreciation for Charles through a round of applause, rather than silence. It was a very moving moment and I could see several people in tears – I was on the verge myself.

This was followed by an interesting Beveridge lecture by Baroness Claire Tyler. She argued for wellbeing as the hook on which we should renew our attempts to tackle the “five great evils”, although she readily acknowledged that the terms Beveridge had used – particularly “idleness” and “squalor” were no longer appropriate for today’s political lexicon.

While very sympathetic to the idea of moving beyond GDP as the measure of political failure or success, which has always seemed entirely inadequate to me, I remain unconvinced that “wellbeing” (or indeed “happiness”) is the right concept to build that idea around. Aside from sounding static, it seems too subjective to sustain hard-edged or challenging policy ideas.

Arguing for Liberty

The conference then broke into several different sessions. It was very difficult to choose between the various topics on offer but I eventually settled for the discussion on liberty, philosophy, policy and the campaign. Speaking were Julian Huppert and, at the last minute, Kelly-Marie, although you wouldn’t have known as she seemed thoroughly prepared and assured.

The discussion ranged across many areas but it became focused in the end upon precisely how liberal arguments could, or should, be made. Huppert eloquently insisted that we should marshal a wide range of arguments – especially those that are not important to us, but will chime with other people’s priorities. He gave the example of same-sex marriage and how, in Coalition, Nick Clegg and Lynne Featherstone had argued for the policy on the basis that it would create more marriages in sum – knowing that this would appeal to David Cameron. (Incidentally, according to Julian, this was also why equalising civil partnerships was not allowed through – because it would have a negative impact on the total number of marriages!)

This led to interesting debate, with some people expressing some reservations about the extent to which we should be pragmatic. Huppert also emphasised the need, alongside this kind of messaging, to take radical stands in order to shift the Overton Window and make space for new policies to become mainstream.

I wanted to ask a question about how a party so reduced in voice could achieve this, and whether new outside organisations such as think tanks would be necessary or helpful in doing so – looking to the considerable influence of institutions such as Policy Exchange and Respublica over David Cameron’s tenure as Conservative leader. Unfortunately some questions and interventions in that session were so long that I didn’t have the opportunity!

Reforming Government and Political Pluralism

After the lunch break I particularly enjoyed a fascinating session on “reforming government”. I felt that the title was rather ambitious given the election result, but the insights from Chris Nicholson and especially Daisy Cooper were compelling.

Chris spoke mainly of his experience as a special adviser to Ed Davey at DECC. He occasionally strayed onto controversial ground, at one point suggesting that too rigid a commitment to evidence-based policy could act as a block on action, as it was used as an excuse to push things into the long grass through endless piloting and rethinking. He also seemed to imply that the back bench committees set up by the party during the coalition had been too focused on holding Lib Dem ministers to account, rather than bringing new and neglected policies to their attention.

Daisy, by contrast, chose to focus her comments on how we could argue for reform better. Her central thesis that arguing effectively for change should be based on pointing out how it gives people more power was appropriately powerful, especially when listing the number of areas of society and economy where power is concentrated in the hands of a very few – the big two political parties mirrored by the big four supermarkets, the big six energy firms, the big four audit firms, and more.

This session was followed by a return to plenary. A panel on political pluralism was chiefly memorable for David Howarth’s rather depressing assessment of the likelihood of any kind of progressive majority developing. (Clue: it probably isn’t ever going to happen, mainly because of the inbuilt tensions that dominate the Labour Party, which are being played out in their leadership election.)

Leadership Hustings

The final portion of the day was allocated to a showdown between the two leadership candidates, Tim Farron and Norman Lamb. I declared my support for Tim a long while ago in a rather overlong post on this blog, but I was interested to see the two men set out their stalls live.

I was unsurprised by the divergence in style and content between Norman and Tim. I felt that Norman was trying hard to inject some passion and charisma into his pitch, leaning hard on his background as a campaigning employment lawyer, as well as his family’s liberal history. But ultimately his speech sounded pretty safe, and didn’t seem to differ at all from the others I’ve read during the campaign.

Tim obviously did the same to an extent, but was more keen to be topical. In particular he drew out some specific and strong liberal positions on recent news stories including the migrant situation at Calais and George Osborne’s announcement on inheritance tax. This felt fresh and relevant in a way that Norman’s pitch had not.

I wasn’t able to stay for all the questions, unfortunately, but the way that both candidates listened and responded to the ones put to them gave me confidence that whoever is the new leader will be keen to hear the views of the whole membership.

Conclusion

This was a really positive day and I’m really glad I made it along. As with many new things, I was a bit daunted at first, especially given the large turnout. But the atmosphere was welcoming and positive, and certainly not factional in any way – I heard a real range of views over the day, and everyone was listened to with respect (sometimes too much, if anything!).

I’d definitely recommend the experience to new members, even if you aren’t sure whether you align yourself with the SLF or any other group. It’s a great way to understand what’s important to different people within the Lib Dems and to benefit from the wisdom and experience of people who have been a force for positive, liberal change in society through their activism and campaigning.

The whole day left me more positive about the future of the party and keen to play a small part myself. If my experience is any indication, the SLF should consider yesterday a job very well done.

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