Social Liberal Forum Conference

On Saturday, I went to the Social Liberal Forum Conference, held in the Amnesty International Building in Shoreditch, London. The event was well attended by Liberal Democrat members and activists (I was there in an academic capacity). Speakers included Tim Farron MP, Vince Cable MP and Ed Davey MP. 

A few things to note. Much has been made of the Liberal Democrats’ alarming fall in membership across the country, not least by myself. However, a large fall in membership doesn’t necessary translate into a similarly large fall in activism. Activists yesterday were good natured, reasonably comfortable with the party’s position ahead of 2015, and weren’t looking to ‘rock the boat’, or any similar sailing analogy. They responded warmly to Cable, Farron and Davey, and those on the right of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party were the recipients of only the gentlest of ribbings.

Tim Farron gave the keynote lecture. It followed an article in the Huffington Post on Friday evening which revealed much of what was going to be said: Farron would talk about a new liberal consensus, and the Liberal Democrats should not just be a coalition party by definition. However, he focused much more on the former. In his speech, he called for a ‘comprehensive liberalism’, following on from Jeremy Browne’s call for an ‘authentic liberalism‘ recently. Bar the new adjective for their ideas of what modern liberalism represents, there were quite a few similarities between the two: support for HS2, and more generally a big push for investment in infrastructure. Interestingly, he also called for a much bigger commitment to the living wage, saying that firms who pay it could receive a tax cut. Two things on that. One, Vince Cable was sceptical of such an idea earlier on in the day. Two, Ed Miliband was not, arguing for pretty much the same thing at Labour’s National Policy Forum on Saturday.

Vince Cable’s speech focused much more on Liberal Democrat achievements in government. I’m not sure if this is new, but the one thing I’d not heard before was his claim that the Liberal Democrats have blocked the privatisation of the student loan book.

Ed Davey also spoke more retrospectively, and focused on the Liberal Democrats’ energy policies. Interestingly, he pointed to the greater achievements of Liberal Democrats in government where they led departments (such as energy). When I asked him about whether he felt it was a mistake to spread ministers out reasonably thinly in 2010, he said no, arguing that ‘going down the German route’ of having different coalition parties running different government departments might have led to a much more divided government. With regards to 2015, he simply said that the Liberal Democrats would ‘learn from their previous experiences’, should coalition be on the agenda again.

An interesting day all around, ending with the anoraks’ discussion about the prospects for social liberalism. Until next year…

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