The Orange Book & its impact on the Lib Dems, 8 years on – my report back from last night’s IEA event

by Stephen Tall on July 13, 2012

Last night, the IEA held a fascinating debate looking at the impact the infamous The Orange Book — edited by David Laws and Paul Marshall, with contributions from many of the newest / brightest / most economically liberal MPs — had on the Lib Dems following its publication in 2004. The panel included Dr Steve Davies, Education Director, IEA; Dr Tim Leunig, Chief Economist, Centre Forum; Mark Littlewood, Director General, IEA; and Paul Marshall, Chairman, Centre Forum management board.

You can see my as-live tweets of the event below, but here are some other quick other/further observations:

The self-evident point about The Orange Book was, rightly, repeated again last night: it is a book more often talked about than read. To many on the social liberal / left of the party it is an embodiment of all that is wrong with the Lib Dems: ‘neoclassical’ right-wing orthodoxy which the leadership (more or less) bought into and imposed on the party against the will of members. This is an over-simplification containing one grain of truth.

First, the over-simplification: The Orange Book was a collection of authors, ranging from David Laws (most classically liberal) to Steve Webb (most social liberal). There is no single, common thread uniting the authors, and the essays range from the fairly conventional, highlighting established Lib Dem policy (Mark Oaten on criminal justice) through to the more daringly radical (David Laws on the NHS ‘social insurance’ model). There is no single chapter dedicated to what a ‘classically liberal’, Lib Dem economic policy should look like, probably reflecting the benign economic conditions of the time. The closest to it is the contribution of Vince Cable (another author usually depicted, wrongly, as being definitively on the ‘social liberal / left’ wing of the party) championing free trade, deregulation, limits to public spending and the marginal tax take, and provider plurality in the provision of public services.

Then the grain of truth: it’s fair to say that the more market-orientated Orange Book approach has been grabbed primarily by the party leadership, and viewed with deep scepticism by many (though by no means all) Lib Dem activists. The point was made last night that it’s by no means unusual for party leaders and their activists not to see eye-to-eye: just ask Tony Blair. What marks out the Lib Dems is the party’s adherence to a form of internal democracy, in which there is a link (sometimes tenuous) from party members to party policy. Mark Littlewood pushed strongly the idea that the Lib Dem leadership should be attempting to open up debates and votes to the membership as a whole rather than, as it does now, limiting crucial policy votes to a selectorate of conference representatives and committees which, he argued, favoured the best-organised activists (currently the Social Liberal Forum). Tim Leunig made a different point: parties, no matter what their internal democratic structures, are shaped by their leaders: the Lib Dems are currently more in the image of Nick Clegg, and so more Orange Book; if Tim Farron were to become leader, the party would look, feel and be different for a period of time.

Hopefully these tweets will give you a flavour of some of what was said last night…