Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Lib Dem Factions: The Social Liberals

This is the third post in my series looking at the various factions within the Lib Dems. In my last post I looked at Liberal Left (not the formal group itself but a wider group within the party that shares several views). As with my previous two posts, the same provisos apply with regards to this post: the term "factions" is somewhat misleading as the actual factions are more like overlapping schools of thought, and the Lib Dems have far greater party unity than Labour or the Tories to boot, and lots of people within the party don't consider themselves part of any faction at all.

Nevertheless, I think that the different views within the party can broadly speaking be grouped into various "factions" and that's what this series of posts is looking at. Today I will be looking at the Social Liberals.

The Social Liberals

As a declaration of interest, I consider myself to be a Social Liberal inasmuch as I consider myself to be part of any 'faction' - I'll try to keep any personal bias out of this post though.

This is perhaps the only faction name that isn't actually a misnomer - Social Liberals essentially are followers of the philosophy of social liberalism. That being said, 'social liberal' is such a broad term that many people in the Lib Dems would call themselves a social liberal even though they might belong to another faction. So when I use the term Social Liberals I am referrign to a particular school of thought within the party rather than just everyone who might be happy with the label social liberal.

This is a group who supported the decision to enter coalition with the conservative (though grudgingly in a lot of cases) but who aren't entirely happy with the way the coalition government has turned out. Members of this faction generally disagree fundamentally with the coalition on at least one or two big issues - tuition fees, the NHS reforms and the welfare reforms are normally major bugbears in particular. They are most likely to consider themselves critical supporters of the coalition - supporting the coalition due to the lack of an alternative rather than enthusiastically supporting it for its own sake.

This is partly due to the fact that these are the people who consider themselves and the Liberal Democrats to be a left of centre party and who draw upon the traditions of the economist Keynes and  of Lloyd-George's People's Budget. They are also, in a lot of cases, influenced by the SDP as many social liberals of the appropriate age were grassroots members of that party prior to the merger which formed the Liberal Democrats. In addition, the might often feel that the party has drifted rightwards under the Clegg leadership.

The main difference between the Social Liberals and, for example, the Orange Bookers, is that the Social Liberals are much more in favour of public action to tackle issues, including state intervention, as opposed to a hands-off approach.

This means that they support maintaining, or even slightly increasing, levels of state spending, often through a rebalancing of the tax and welfare system that eases the burden on the poorest while increasing the burden on the wealthiest. Perhaps one of their most defining characteristics in this regard is that they favour active steps to reduce inequality as a higher priority than steps to reduce inequality of opportunity.

As a general rule, they view the state as a tool which can be used positively to build a fairer society rather than an impediment which needs to be pruned back in order to allow a fairer society to flourish. Therefore they are likely to first consider public action in the form of state intervention or regulation to resolve problems before looking at alternatives, rather than the other way round.

Because of all of the above, this is a group which is likely to have reservations about the current direction of the party and what they might consider to be the undue influence of the Orange Bookers. In particular, they are likely to think that Nick Clegg appeared to be too close to the conservatives in the initial years of the coalition and are in favour of a strategy of much stronger differentiation from the tories.

In terms of their size, they can probably best be estimated as being aproximately the same people who support "Plan A+" on the economy - broadly maintaining the same focus on reducing the deficit but also wanting much greater use of stimulus in the form of infrastructure projects and investment in green technology in order to boost the economy.

Now, in the last Lib Dem Voice survery on economic issues, 54% of respondents agreed with the following statement:
While it is right that we cut the deficit and I broadly support the government’s austerity measures, the frailty of Europe’s economies requires a new approach – we should take advantage of low interest rates to increase borrowing for capital investment to try and boost growth now.
As this is pretty much the defining economic view of the Social Liberals compared to the other factions, this leads me to estimate that they account for just over half (or 50 to 60%) of the party.

This assessment would make them by far the largest faction in the party but only barely a majority. And my personal experience would seem to back this up as votes on policy at conference generally tend to produce that proportion of representatives voting in favour of those motions which are distinctly Social Liberal positions.

In terms of influence in the party, the cohesiveness of this faction has been strengthened significantly since the foundation of the Social Liberal Forum in 2008 in response to the perceived rightwards lean of the leadership on taxation. Since the creation of the coalition the SLF has shifted slightly to the aim of promoting social liberal policies within the Lib Dems and has actually had considerable success in getting social liberal policies past conference and generally helping social liberals in the party to join forces with each other after a period where many of them felt they were being sidelined.

The most prominent victory of the SLF was when at Sheffield conference they mobilised to turn a policy motion supportive of the NHS reforms into a policy motion highly critical of the NHS reforms. So, when it comes to influencing party policy, they wield a lot of clout - in part due to the large numbers of voting representatives who are members of the SLF.

In addition, the Social Liberals have a prominent voice in the form of Evan Harris who is known for being outspoken in his criticism of coalition policies that he and other Social Liberals consider illiberal. They have another prominent voice in the form of Vince Cable who, despite not being a member of any particular faction (much like most Lib Dem MPs in that regard), often advocates policy positions very similar to those promoted by the Social Liberals. In particular, the Plan A+ economic strategy he recommends is highly similar to the economic strategy promoted by the SLF.

However, despite this, the leadership of the party is generally speaking not especially identified with the Social Liberal faction which restricts the Social Liberals' influence to passing policy at conference and getting people elected to internal party structures such as the Federal Policy Committee.

So, to summarise, this is a faction which represents (just about) the majority of Lib Dem members and has commensurate clout on everything which involves the membership directly such as Lib Dem policy making and internal elections. In this field it probably punches just above its weight. When it comes to influencing coalition policy, however, things are a much more mixed bag with the Social Liberals probably punching below their weight due to Orange Bookers punching above their weight. That, however, is something which relates to the interaction between the different factions - and that's something I'll look at in my next post.

EDIT: It's been suggested to me that I might have over estimated the size of this faction as the economic views of it also overlap with the economic views of both Liberal Left and several Orange Bookers. My instinct and personal experience would tell me that the Social Liberals do probably make up the majority of the membership though it's possible that I'm wrong on that. However, I'm pretty much certain that, even if they don't make up the majority of members, the Social Liberals are by far the largest minority.


  1. I must say that overall I am really impressed with this blog.It is easy to see that you are impassioned about your writing. I wish I had got your ability to write. I look forward to more updates and will be returning.

  2. It just comes to me that - If the social liberals are against the dismantling of the NHS and wrecking the welfare state and the tuition fees thing - How come - henever there was a vbote on the reforms etc - did the libs just stick their heads in the sand andnot vote at all - Thus the conservascum got all their ideas through because a no vopte just sounded like a yellow vote of cowardice to stand up for your own beliefs?

    We - the public who actually care - are sitting here watching the conservascum trashing the NHS,making kids unable to afford uni - To make the welfare state become somethign where people are dying, and unable to pass any disability test - which does not get rid of their disabilities - it just makes them have zero money through sanctions. You sign on that you are able to work, if you know you cannot work, you arent allowed to sign on - yet ESA tell you to bog off and sign on. It is a cycle of terror, that just goes round and round and the people becoming rich off this is ATOS and the like.

    No jobs to get - no money to spend - and yet they wonder why we are in recession? If I have no spare cash I am not gonna buy a new TV or car or anythign at all - I am having enough problems finding enough money to eat!

    Sorry but - I just sit here wondering what conservascum are gonna throw at us next. They are ok - theyre rich on daddies cash. Normal peple who dont have rich parentage have to eat less and less then that affects your health and you get more sick.

    I keep praying that clegg will stand up and be a man and tell 'dave' that he wont stand for this, and force a new election or somethign - anything - just somethign to save this country that is going backwards in time like its on a fast train to the 1800s. Food banks - I had never heard of one in UK - now there are hundreds of them! This is menna be 'great' britain and yet so many people are having to gho to food banks cos of 'sanctions' that are bloody ridiculous - got sanctioned for not applying for a job that was already gone! - 12 weeks of nothing for a job that was not available and the person told to not apply for!

    They trick people into poverty - it is all to make the poor poorer and the rich richer

    I am sickened by what I am seeing happening now

    Yes i will shut up - when they do the right thing - or I die - which will happens first - who knows, lost 2lb in last week so being 122lbs now - not far to go to being underweight....

  3. Will there be one on the faction of Liberal Democrats who, whilst perhaps adapting to one dominant faction or the other, ultimately believe that the size of the state - whether Keynes or Hayek - is only of concern insomuch as it affect individual freedom, and that economic growth theory is ultimately a scientific question. I would call these 'Lime-housers' or Mill liberals - the absolute rejection of the left/right dichotomy and an appreciation for all the state does in promoting liberty of people from anything and an appreciation that the state could - just as business can - go too far in encroaching on that liberty.


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