Monday 19 October 2009

The new frontiers

I went to the annual Schumacher lectures in Bristol on Saturday, and fascinating it was. In fact, so fascinating, that it has led me to try to put into words a bit better why I feel so frustrated with political parties at the moment – even my own.

It wasn’t that I heard anything especially new – though there were some fascinating insights – it was the sheer energy in the room that made me realise how much the world outside politics is shifting.

The Schumacher Lectures have toddled along for decades on the fringes of the mainstream, but something is happening. The huge conference hall next to the Bristol City Council chamber was packed with 400 people who showed up. My own workshop on the future of money attracted 150 people the first time, and another 100 the second time I ran it an hour later. We lefties are not used to workshops on quite that scale.

Those who came were imaginative, intelligent and interesting. I noticed a number of Lib Dems in the audience too, which was reassuring (hello Paul, George, etc!) I would say they were all pretty committed to the idea that serious changes are needed in our economics and politics because of the climate, energy and financial crisis. But they also believed in the future. They know it’s going to be different.

So why do I find myself, in mainstream political policy discussions, slogging through the same old arguments about taxing, spending and the size of the state, which we were doing three decades ago?

It isn’t that the outcomes are unimportant. I’m as committed as the next person to a fairer, more equal society. But I’m also aware of how little has been achieved in the conventional Beveridge consensus, or the privatising Thatcherite one that followed it. And if Liberal Democrats aren’t in the forefront of new thinking, who is? But are we?


Joe Otten said...

Well I'm told that you're at the forefront of this new thinking, so therefore we are.

But do you really have an alternative to taxing and spending? I would be happy to hear it.

David Boyle said...

I'm not saying that we are going to go beyond tax and spend. But I am saying that politics is now very much broader than that. We have left behind the old Fabian assumption that tax and spend is all there is - as if it was obvious that everything we spend money on now is justified, and the systems sensible.

It seems to me, just as far as public services are concerned, that we are spending a great deal of money on things we shouldn't be spending money on - and not spending on things we urgently need to. If it was all about how high the income tax is, we never get to discuss that.

Neil Stockley said...

I find it hard to think of many areas where the Lib Dems are "out in front", with new thinking. I put this up as a commment on someone's post on Lib Dem Voice a week or so back, but am not aware that anyone had an answer. Maybe the party is feeling comfortable and (self?) satisfied.

Can you let me know the details for the new Schumacher lectures?


David Boyle said...

Information about the lectures is at

But I don't think the lectures themselves are up anywhere yet.

Perhaps political parties can never be, by their very nature, in the forefront of new thinking. But if they are going to have any chance of electoral success, they need to be at the heart of debate about new thinking, and especially for third parties.

This is a real problem for Lib Dems right now. Partly because they are now too knitted into the Westminster agenda and Westminster life, they are generally speaking not part of the latest debates.

Nor are they really leading the old Liberal ones. They are leaving a number of keys on the old Liberal organ unplayed, which is a pity - I don't, for example, see much interest in the implications of diversity for economics, or education, or health at the moment.

They are closer to the forefront of debate on the environment than anything else, and your (Neil's) chairmanship of the climate change policy has a great deal to do with that...

Neil Stockley said...

You may be too kind. The climate change policy is getting out of date in many areas - it's fast moving debate and the party is struggling to keep up, let alone lead. You may like to have a look at my letter in the latest Lib Dem News.