In defence of the Social Liberal Forum

After reading Tim Oliver’s blog post titled ‘On fighting for what you believe in and leaving things behind’ I felt my fingers twitching and my teeth starting to grind. Whilst I respect a lot of points Tim has made in the post, I felt it came across as yet another attempt to generalise the organisation which I serve as Membership Development officer based upon a couple of negative experiences over social media. I will try to tackle as many of the points raised whilst also giving “my side” to the story based upon my experiences as a member on the “left” of the party. 

Firstly, it feels a lot of these negative experiences are based on interactions on social media and sites like Lib Dem Voice. I have never regarded the likes of Facebook and Twitter as a good way to truly gauge the character of individuals, nor as a means to understand the work of an organisation like SLF. If I was to take my experience as a Liberal Democrat purely based on interactions over social media then I would have left a long time ago. It is rare that a day goes by where myself, or others with similar views, aren’t pounced upon or patronised. I’ve been called stupid over my stance on tuition fees, called c*nt on at least two occasions and had numerous accusations of entryism thrown at me for the most ridiculous of reasons (daring to start a group for Young Social Liberals being one…). So, although this isn’t meant to reassure Tim, I would like to remind him that feeling sidelined and pushed out based on the hostility of others is certainly not the property of a few on his side of the party.

On the point of Browne’s book (which I haven’t read, I will get round to it!) and the comparison made to a quote, yes a quote, given to the BBC in the run up to the election…well, that should speak for itself. To equate and compare an entire book written by a former Lib Dem government minister to a single quote given to the BBC (after it was requested) seems to me a little desperate. I said this at the time when others made such criticisms and I’m surprised this is still seen as any kind of issue. We didn’t see endless Lib Dem Voice articles and blog posts on the contentious fallout from the quote (yes, A SINGLE QUOTE!) like we did with Browne’s book so maybe we can put that little comparison to rest.

Now what often alarms me about critics of SLF is their hostility towards its members organising and collectively trying to achieve their shared goals. We’re a democratic party. Our members have a direct say in the policy making process. Liberal Reform do similar. They put together their own amendments, host their own fringe events and send out conference briefings. And quite right that they do too! But it seems Tim and others seem particularly concerned at a future in the party where the views of those in SLF become more prevalent, despite the fact that members have every right to try and influence the direction of the party and its policies. Tim is concerned about the future of the party (because the SLF may make more ground?) which may be something to push him out of the party but I can’t help but feel little sympathy for this. Despite this party being led by an individual I do not support, despite us being complicit in a government that has pursued policy that makes me red with rage and despite often feeling disillusioned with our conferences I have still stood by the party. I intend to stand by it in good times and in bad because I fundamentally believe that Britain needs a party flying the flag for liberalism and I want to be part of the movement that seeks to entrench it in British politics. 

So what happens when maybe we do end up with a left-leaning leader? Or if maybe we did one day form a coalition with Labour? Am I supposed to then feel guilty because it makes others in the party uncomfortable? I’m sorry, but I simply refuse. I have supported the concept a Tory-Lib Dem coalition from the very beginning and have endlessly given Nick and the party the benefit of the doubt on so much. I have stood by, often proudly and sometimes uncomfortably, so I shall reserve no sympathy for those wishing to abandon ship because there is a risk things may not be politically easy for them. Tim, in his last paragraph, says he has a lot to fight for still. I just hope he chooses to do it in the party. We all share far more common goals than we will all ever be seen to admit which is a shame.

The harshest of accusations thrown towards SLF in Tim’s post comes at the fifth paragraph:

‘From what I can see, the SLF’s vision of the party is of a Labour-lite; a timid, status-quo protecting centre-left beige mass, that covers up its addiction to Westminster legislation and more government agencies as the cure for all ills by attachment to a cluster of headline reforms that seek to demonstrate some tepid liberalism remains somewhere in that great blancmange of vapidity.’


Now before I take this on directly, I want to point out something that did make me laugh. Tim bemoans the fact that people like him have often had to put up with being called ‘Tories’. Now, whilst I think this actually is petty and counterproductive to holding proper, informed political discussions it doesn’t scream of hypocrisy when Tim himself denounces SLF vision of the party as being ‘Labour-lite’ and lists reasons as to why this is so. Seemingly it is ok for Tim to throw such unfounded accusations, but alarmingly unfair for him to have such things thrown at him. 

Now the Labour-lite comparison is a curious one. Had Tim have given some direct comparisons on the views of SLF and drawn lines to what Labour has said on similar issues then it would have at least come across as a credible point. However, Tim made no such attempt. He instead bogged down his point in pomp and flowery words that actually mean very little unless given the context of some, y’know, facts or actual policy. On our vision I would actually like to enlighten people on what we and our members actually do think. We have recently launched a brilliant website which gives people the chance to launch their own policy ideas, which people can then vote up or down based on whether they agree or not. Now, you’ll find some ideas are quite similar to many things Labour have been saying, but equally there are a number of distinctly liberal ideas shared on the website (not least the longstanding commitment to a Land Value Tax). 

I feel it is a shame that I have had to respond to this post. But I’ve had enough of accusation after accusation being thrown at the Social Liberal Forum. They have given me a home in the party that makes me comfortable and have helped empower me and others to organise for the issues we are passionate about. It is also a shame that this has needed to be said at all, because the people in SLF are really rather wonderful. I would say to Tim that he should actually come to our events and engage with us. It may be the last thing he wants to be told, but have you ever approached us in such a way? Because the people I have met are intelligent, caring people who are proud of their liberalism and proud of the fact that, yes, they may be just that little bit more radical than the average member. But you need to realise that for many, the Liberal Democrats, have always been the radicals in British politics. Years of opposition to nuclear weapons, to tuition fees, to opposing the war on Iraq, to fighting for a compassionate welfare state, an NHS in the publics hands and much more. So when you may wince at lefties like me preaching what you may feel are the same cliched arguments, just take a second to consider the context of why we’re saying this and the history of our party. For a lot of people, particularly our older members, the direction the party has been dragged in over a relatively short period of time has been difficult for them to accept. So if a group like SLF can help make that transition a little bit easier for them, and if it helps make them feel like they have a voice again then whats to hate?

I hope that people, in future, can start to build bridges and conduct internal debates with a little bit more respect. And I say this to everyone. Politics is emotive and it can be divisive, but this is just testament to its importance. So lets all make an effort to help change it for the better and make it just that little bit more accessible for the likes of myself and for the likes of Tim.