What can we do to make Britain a more liberal society?

These days, being a liberal is cool. It’s the in thing. Just two quick examples. In The Guardian we’ve had Martin Kettle urging Labour to be more liberal. And on the other side, even that nice Mr Cameron says he wants to be liberal too.

With all these men wanting to be liberal, what’s a good liberal girl like me to do? Well, I want to talk about both what a liberal society should be like – but also what we – you – can do to help bring it about. I don’t just want you to just go away thinking, “that was an interesting speech” (though I’d prefer that to you falling asleep!), but also “I’m now going to go off and do X, Y, Z.” Because society is what we make it.

We first need a clear picture of what makes for a more liberal society. Only if we put such a picture in people’s minds, so that they know instinctively what we stand for – without having to be shown a list of nice, but apparently unconnected policy proposals – will we succeed in making a substantial leap forward in numbers of seats and political power.

Chris Rennard put it very well at the Meeting the Challenge policy conference earlier this year, when he said that our “10 reasons to vote Liberal Democrat” message in 2005 was a bit like telling people all the ingredients for a recipe without actually telling them was the recipe was for.

For me, the recipe is a fairer society. And what I really mean by that is a more equal society. Because more equality – not absolute equality, but more equality – is needed for society to be fairer – and better.

Under two and a half decades of Thatcherite and New Labour governments, Britain has steadily become a less equal and a less fair society.

Under Blair, rates of social mobility have actually fallen. If you are born into a poor family now you are more likely to remain poor throughout your adult life than you were 30 years ago. And your educational chances are strongly correlated to your social class – setting the prospects for children even before they reach school.

In health too, inequalities are still increasing. Ever since the publication of the Black Report twenty-five years ago, it’s been well known that inequalities in people’s health are directly related to inequalities in income and wealth. That’s why Greece, with half the average wealth per person of the US, actually has a longer average life expectancy.

And in Iraq – after ten years of sanctions, with war ravaged infrastructure and continuing violence – has an average male life expectancy that is 8 years higher than that of the Calton area of Glasgow. The explanation? Inequalities in wealth again.

In fact, a whole host of studies across different countries have consistently shown that not just in terms of education and health, but also in terms of crime, social respect, trust and participation – the outcomes are linked to the degrees of inequality in wealth and income.

Take my own area – crime. More than fifty studies in recent years show a clear tendency for violence to be more common in societies where income differences are larger. About half the variation in homicide rates between different states or provinces in the US and Canada is accounted for by differences in levels of equality.

Levels of imprisonment in all developed countries are related to income inequality and levels of literacy and mathematical ability – which are themselves closely linked to inequality.

This link between violence and inequality shows not just in murder rates, but in strife too. One British survey in the 1990s showed that families living on less than £10,000 a year were more than twice as likely to have daily arguments as those living on more than £20,000.

Perhaps most striking of all for liberals, the extent to which communities work as communities is also closely related to levels of equality. Studies show that levels of trust between individuals -the essential underpinning of any functioning community – are higher the more equal the community.

So – what’s going on here? There are some immediate obvious explanations, such as the links between inequality, envy and levels of theft and robbery.

But the underlying reason for such a pervasive relationship between inequality and social outcomes, I believe, is the stress caused by living at the bottom of the pecking order, on the lowest rung – with its issues of status, disrespect and exclusion.

We’re social animals, and the quality of the social relations we experience matters enormously. Feelings of shame and embarrassment are powerful, and in extreme cases can lead to violence. Questions of “respect” – or disrespect – and status are central to the behaviour of chronically violent men. It’s a large part of knife culture in our big cities for example – having a knife equals having status. With a knife – so the twisted logic goes – you’re somebody and who’s going to diss you now?

Drawing out the links between inequality and social problems isn’t being soft on crime – it actually gives us far more scope for action to tackle crime than just wringing our hands muttering, “they’re so evil”. It’s not being soft on crime – it’s tackling crime.

What governments of both the other parties have done in our country is to allow a society to develop where inequality, exclusion, stress and low-level tension is the norm. As a recent report by the Young Foundation put it, looking at east London, “mutual support and neighbourliness have declined; isolation is increasing; mental illness is more prevalent than it was half a century ago; the signs of day-to-day anger and tension are everywhere”.

So as a party we should be looking at policies to reduce stress and inequality, with less emphasis on status and more on cooperation and friendship.

Status and friendship have their roots in fundamentally different ways of resolving the problem of competition for scarce resources. Status is based on pecking order, coercion and privileged access to resources, while friendship is based on a more egalitarian basis of social obligations and reciprocity.

So I want Liberal Democrats to be the party of fairness, which means the party of equality – including a more redistributive tax system, public services geared to the needs of the poor and inarticulate, industrial democracy, so that workers have a genuine say, and a government framework that supports, rather than undermines, community coherence.

I also want us to do more than thinking the government or – even worse, that staple of policy motions, “the independent inquiry” – is the sole route to making a liberal society.

For the other part of greater equality and fairness is that good liberal traditional instinct of finding the sources of power and inequality and wrongdoing and taking them on.

Let me give you one example. His name is Nigel Roberts. Before moving to the Channel Islands he was a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and – coincidentally – hosts my website.

Faced with large number of spam emails in his inbox – sound familiar? – he didn’t just rail against the world. He took power into his own hands – picked on one of the culprits, found a law to use and sued. The small claims court mind – this is not a tale of huge financial resources. And he won, with damages awarded.

His court victory won’t put stop to spam overnight. But Nigel has shown how you can have success if your answer to seeing something wrong is to ask, “and what can I do about it?”

Cumulatively the impact of lots of little actions carries weight even with the mightiest of multi-national megaliths.

It’s the power of the nagging nanny, using political office as a bully pulpit and using our communities as a resource to work with for liberal ends. Use the press, the public meeting, the petition, the website, the law – not just for electoral campaigning but also to embarrass the quango, shame the company, persuade the decision maker.

If have a run down site that’s blighting your community, don’t just walk past. But don’t either just take a photo and stick i
t in a leaflet. Do that, but embarrass the owners in the press, get up the petition, organise the public meeting – and get Section 215 of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act on the case.

I assume of course you all know what that says!

But if not, go and look it up when you get back from conference – that’s section 215 – it’s a treasure trove of legal powers that can be used to improve our communities – if you want action, if you want change, if you want a better society.

It would certainly make conference debates interesting if at the end of each speech the chair asked the speaker, “and what have you done about it?”!

And it’s also important that we don’t just turn away when liberal values are under threat. It’s so easy to ignore a tabloid rant on crime, wish it didn’t exist and turn to the comfort zone of The Independent or Guardian instead.

But instead of turning the other cheek to the hang ’em, flog ’em brigade, we should take them on. Make them justify why they think prison works. Face up to them with the re-offending rates of released criminals and ask them what they’re going to do about it – make all jail sentences for every offence life sentences? And make them justify the huge costs of prisons. Is that money really not better spent on the police and society to reduce the crime rate in the first place?

We must argue our case and our ground. For, to quote Isaac Foot’s famous 1947 lecture, “Liberty is never something achieved; it is always something that is being achieved … Although the fight for liberty never ceases, the battle-ground changes in every generation.”

It’s our task – your task when you return home – to do what it takes to ensure it keep on shifting towards, not away from, a liberal, fair and more equal society.

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