Peter McLaughlin

Despite the uncertainties of a pandemic, economic disaster, and ‘academic rigour’, this term has been a great success for CULA – especially in terms of speakers! This is the first in a series of short write-ups of our speaker events, for anyone who might have missed them or wants to revisit them; and remember, all the talks are available on our Youtube channel!

Layla Moran MP

The Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon join CULA on Zoom on the 15th of April, and spoke to us about the state of politics, parliament, and the country during the lockdown.

Layla began by saying how she “really feels for everybody”, noting that despite lockdown applying to everyone, we’re really not all ‘in the same boat’: there are lots of people who are really struggling right now, and who are being unequally affected by this crisis. She mentioned especially young people, who are already in a bad financial situation emerging from the last financial crisis and don’t have the same asset-based resilience that older generations have (compounded by the housing crisis; but also those who are suffering from mental health problems, which are compounded by the isolation of lockdown, and those from BME communities, who constitute a disproportionately high number of hospital deaths from coronavirus as well as a disproportionately high number of front-line workers. Layla emphasised that the government must do everything in its power to support these groups, and that the Lib Dems should be at the forefront holding them to account.

Building on this theme, Layla noted that scrutiny of the government is needed when it comes to political judgments that are being obscured by the language of ‘listening to the science’: it is a “complete cop-out”, she said, to pretend that scientists are offering us “one correct answer” to COVID-19. This crisis requires and has involved political judgment, and the government should be more transparent about this; Layla especially mentioned clarity about who sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), answers about lack of ventilators and the PPE crisis, and increased scrutiny of the police, who have in many places taken a far too heavy-handed approach. The Lib Dems’ liberal values, Layla suggested, should have us at the forefront of calling for all of these things.

Layla emphasised that after the crisis, there is no possibility of returning to the status quo ante. The question of how to exit lockdown is a difficult one that she says she just has no answer to, but she said that in her view this is “a public health crisis first”, and that despite the economic pain we must not risk the lives of the vulnerable. But the economic pain is real, and she urged the government to take radical action—including a crisis universal basic income, which might be extended into the future—to protect the economically vulnerable, too. And ultimately, the coronavirus must be used to shift our attention to pressing problems that existed before the crisis, but which have been brought to the fore during it: Layla spoke especially about social care.

Layla also spoke and took questions from our members on the Lib Dems’ performance in the December election, and the party’s future; the question of civil liberties and free speech during lockdown; the ongoing realities of Brexit; our relationship to the Labour Party; education policy; housing; and much more. Watch her talk here!

Howard Dean

We were really excited to welcome such a key figure in US politics: Howard Dean was Governer of Vermont from 1991–2003 and Chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2005–2009. Dean began by talking about his experiences, not of the Democratic Party, but of the Lib Dems: describing his engagement with Sir Nick Clegg, and saying that despite his sympathy with the party and with Clegg personally, the Lib Dems made significant mistakes in coalition—including on tuition fees—and that we missed our chance to recover at the last election. He urged that, under first past the post, the Lib Dems would need to make an alliance with other parties (probably including Labour) in order to make any kind of recovery.

Widening his focus, Dean said that he suspected that the economic consequences after Brexit takes place will be appalling for Britain, even for normally Tory-supporting groups, and there will probably be some significant unrest in the electorate afterwards. There is no serious negotiation going on over the issue: partially because Johnson is “dead-set on crashing out”, partially because of the bigger worries of coronavirus, and partially because of internal troubles within the EU, especially with the increasing undemocratic orders in Poland and Hungary. Dean said the EU is an “incredible achievement”—comparing it with the US constitution—but said that ‘human failings’ are leading to a weakening of its institutions, and if PiS and Fidesz cannot be dealt with then the EU is in great danger.

The conversation then moved to the US, with Dean being asked about the upcoming presidential election and specifically Joe Biden’s choice of running mate. Reflecting on the Democrats’ support-base (the young, people of colour, and women), he said that the real swing-voters in US politics are not people who might vote Democrat one election and Republican the next, but people who vote one way whenever they vote—but don’t always vote. The issue, then, is getting these groups to turn out: if the Democrats get their turnout up, they win, and if they don’t, they don’t. Dean said that, by committing to picking a female Vice-President, Biden has already helped the Democrats’ appeal towards women and specifically women activists; but that considerations about the other two groups should also affect his pick for running mate.

Asked then about the future of the Democratic party after Biden, Dean said that it lay with young people. Especially when thinking about the makeup of Democrats in the House and Senate, while those that receive the most media attention tend to be on the left of the party, really the majority are hard-working and squarely within the Democratic mainstream (he in fact argues that the younger generation will tend to become much more “conservative about money” over time, as they had to live through the 2008 recession—and, one imagines, the coronavirus recession). But the future of the party, and indeed the country, will be more young people, and also more people of colour and more women, who are changing the US political scene from the ground up. The Republican Party, he said, “are a bunch of 65 year old white people who are terrified of the future”, and he hoped that this meant a shift towards the Democrats as time goes on.

Dean’s talk also touched on his presidential run in 2004 (including the Dean Scream!), international populism and the media, coronavirus, his differences with Bernie Sanders, and more. Watch his talk here!

Sir Vince Cable

That most august of Lib Dems, our former leader Sir Vince Cable, visited CULA on the 29th of April. Vince began by briefly talking about his long-time but “ignominious” relationship with CULA: Vince himself testified he first nearly bankrupted the society while on committee, before leaving the society and the party!

Moving the discussion to the present, Vince noted that it was only one year ago that the Lib Dems were riding high (with him as leader!), doing incredibly well locally and in the European elections. So much has changed since then, most notably a truly disastrous general election. He said that one of the reasons that we struggled so much was that—especially in our Tory-facing marginals—a fear of a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn drove people rightwards. With Labour now led by Starmer, we face some challenges in differentiating ourselves as moderate progressives, but Vince thinks that come the next general election we may find that Tory-Lib Dem swing voters may end up choosing to vote Lib Dem because they are more comfortable with the left, so we “may well recover alongside the Labour Party”. In the short run, Vince emphasised that we should refocus on local government.

Looking beyond the Lib Dems, Vince said that what will soon be hanging over all politics is the awful economic consequences of the current pandemic, which he compared to the Great Depression: huge unemployment, large-scale structural changes to deal with it, and (he predicted) a major debt crisis, at the level of the state, firms, and individuals. Vince stated that many of the most pressing intellectual and political questions of our time will be about dealing with the effects of this crisis: “the liberal principle of combining markets and competition with social justice is going to be stretched to the limits.” There’s a danger of a kind of ‘state capitalism’, as small firms are wiped out and larger ones have their power entrenched: we must work to ensure to make sure this doesn’t happen.

We’re dealing with an economic crisis unprecedented since the war: Vince predicted that if we get through this year with a contraction of less than 15–20% of GDP, we’ll be doing incredibly well, which is about three times as bad as 2008. Being asked about lessons that could be learned from the financial crisis, Vince emphasised two. The first lesson from 2008, Vince said, was that government should throw everything at a crisis to avoid widespread collapse with massive stimulus; most governments are currently doing that to some degree or other, but it’s unclear how much they will actually succeed. The second lesson, which Vince said the coalition government sometimes failed to grasp, was not to move prematurely with regards to dealing with the legacy of debt—the issue of debt, Vince said, shouldn’t even be considered in the next five or ten years, in case possible recovery becomes choked off.

We couldn’t let Vince go without asking him about his recent retweet of London Young Labour, which read “You don’t need to be a Communist or even a Socialist to recognise the positives as well as the evils in Lenin’s rule”—rather a strange figure for a Liberal to be praising! He admitted it was a ‘bizarre episode’ that occurred because he “was a bit bored one afternoon”, but it came out of his book (coming out next year) on some of the major contributors to economic and political thinking, one of the chapters of which is on Lenin. Vince said that we should be open to an open-minded approach to the major figures of history, who we often evaluate in overly black-and-white terms. He did think it was hilarious that Michael Gove responded, though!

Other topics Vince discussed included: international relations with China, especially after coronavirus; the possibility of electoral pacts with Labour; problems with our general election campaign; the future of liberalism internationally, on trade and migration; and much more. Watch his talk here!

Cass Sunstein

It was very exciting to hear last week from one of the most influential legal scholars of the past few decades! Cass Sunstein began his event with CULA by talking about the very topical issue of social change, focussing on three particularly relevant phenomena. He first talked about Timur Kuran’s idea of ‘preference falsification’: people’s choice not to communicate or voice their concerns, interests, beliefs, and aspirations, because of the weight of social factors. (One of the examples Sunstein gave was of a famous sportsperson, who when asked in public if he enjoyed those moments when he was under pressure and his team was relying on him, said yes, but in private said no, that it was stressful and anxiety-inducing—because he was worried about the effects of publicly expressing his feelings, if they ended up on the news.) Sunstein said that this phenomenon is widespread, and thus can be a foundation for huge social change: if social norms shift even slightly, huge numbers of people might begin openly expressing their beliefs, demands, and aspirations who before chose not to. The MeToo movement and the US civil rights movement, he thinks, were examples of this phenomenon.

The second phenomenon he discussed was ‘group polarisation’: people who deliberate in spaces with likeminded people tend to end up with clearer and more extreme views, relative to their pre-deliberation views. Both online and physical spaces offer examples of this; like preference falsification, it is widespread. The question of whether this polarisation can be of benefit to liberalism, or whether it might come to be harmful to it, is one that Sunstein thinks might depend on particular historical conditions; he said he was unsure how to isolate the nature of those conditions. Sunstein also argued that while the names of these two phenomena come from political psychology, they have widespread importance for political theory; indeed, he located discussion of both of them in J. S. Mill.

The final phenomenon Sunstein discussed was “the immense importance of social interactions”. He discusses an experiment that he found ‘stunning’, which asked about what type of music people were most likely to download. First, a control group were (individually) given samples of a variety of songs, and it was recorded which of these songs were most likely to be downloaded in their entirety after the sample was heard—which were most popular, in other words. But then, in a ‘treatment’ group, people were placed into small subgroups, and as they made their decisions about what to download, could see the popularity rankings of the songs in their subgroups. The experimenters were interested to see if social popularity meaningfully affected what people chose to download; and indeed, this was what happened. Within the subgroups, almost anything could happen: the final download rankings were almost random compared to the control. Social interactions can be a determinant of popularity. Sunstein said that very similar findings have been replicated in the political sphere: whether a person backs a position is meaningfully determined, even in the long run, by whether they initially see others like them backing it.

Sunstein argued that these three phenomena, in tandem, can unite to create widespread social change over what seem like incredibly brief spaces of time. His example was the American Revolution: he discussed his amazement in reading about the revolution, as he could see almost in real time as preference falsification was undone, like-minded people came together and advocated for more and more radical liberal ideas, and social interactions convinced those who were unsure to come to back these ideals, which eventually led to the declaration of independence. Ultimately, Sunstein’s message was that liberal social change can come about—can only come about—through small shifts in social conditions and norms that can overcome preference falsification and create the possibility for people’s beliefs and ideals to shift.

Sunstein then opened discussion up to the floor, and talked about: the ways authoritarian governments can use knowledge of these phenomena to stifle social change; preference falsification in polling; his time in the Obama administration; his work on ‘nudges’, and how they might be relevant to the pandemic crisis; and much more. And, perhaps most importantly, he offered an interpretation of the greatest cinematic works of our age: the Star Wars prequels. Watch Sunstein’s talk here!

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