by Stephen Tall on June 24, 2014
Today saw what its co-editor Paul Marshall called the belated launch party for The Orange Book – such was the controversy surrounding its publication 10 years ago that the original event was cancelled. I was only able to attend one of the sessions (on public service reform) so here are five more general observations on its legacy…
1) The Orange Book remains much misunderstood, sometimes deliberately by those who enjoy internal warring, more often by those who’ve not read it (whisper it, some sections are pretty turgid) but know its reputation and assume it’s a right-wing, Thatcherite manual for destroying this country’s social contract. As Paul Marshall re-affirmed today, the aim of The Orange Book was to show how socially liberal aims could best be achieved through economically liberal means, recognising that in the real world both markets and governments fail. Two of its leading contributors are currently the most popular Lib Dem ministers in government: Vince Cable and Steve Webb. That said, it was (for both Marshall and David Laws at any rate) also a very deliberate statement of intent in 2004 that the Lib Dems needed to do more than simply out-Labour Labour by proposing new money and extra staff in every area of public service and argue that was liberalism (which is largely what the party’s 2005 manifesto did).
2) For all that The Orange Book does stress both economic and social liberalism (alongside political and personal liberalism too) it’s pointless to deny it exposes some pretty fundamental ideological divides within the party – put crudely, between those who think government is more often the problem (economic liberals) than the solution (social liberals). The Lib Dems are by no means the only party to have two wings – Tory libertarians co-exist with social authoritarians, Blairites with Bennites in Labour – but being both a smaller and a more democratic party than the other two the divide is frequently on public display. (Of course, the bulk of members are somewhere in the persuadable middle.) If we had proportional representation, perhaps we would break very naturally in two: under first-past-the-post such a split would be harmful to both halves. And if politics were less tribal, then perhaps the Orange Book disapora (the Tories’ Nick Boles, Labour’s Alan Milburn, the Lib Dems’ Jeremy Browne) would unite under the same banner: they would, after all, find more on which to agree with each other than with many in their own parties.
3) The Orange Book did not forge the current Coalition: that was the inevitable and unavoidable product of 2010′s electoral maths. What it did do, however, was give it some pre-ordained common purpose. For a start, Lib Dem policy-making started to take account of the challenge that the book laid down: we moved beyond thinking more money, more staff was always the answer to every social ill. This happened under Charles Kennedy (with Norman Lamb’s first attempts at Royal Mail reform), under Ming Campbell (with the switch away from higher taxes on income towards taxes on pollution and wealth instead), and continued under Nick Clegg. The 2007-08 financial crash would have made much of this inevitable anyway, but at least now it had some form of ideological underpinning. And that did mean there was more affinity with the Tories, especially under the initially modernising David Cameron. This reached its zenith in the Rose Garden in 2010 – with its imprinted image of two parties fusing cheerfully together – and its nadir with the collapse of House of Lords reform in 2012. The Orange Book likely encouraged many Lib Dems (probably me included) to over-estimate the extent to which we could liberalise the Tories.
4) The Orange Book was not a manifesto. For a start, it included no chapter on education, a surprising omission considering not only the Lib Dems had long made education a centre-piece of the party manifesto (eg, the 1p on income tax campaign under Paddy Ashdown), but also Marshall’s keen personal interest (as chairman of ARK schools) – and ironic given it’s been David Laws’ principal brief both in opposition and in government. Nor did it have much to say about the economy. True there is a chapter on liberal economics from Vince Cable, then our shadow chancellor, but much of its focus is on regulatory reform and public service provision. Yes, there’s some cursory discussion of the size of the state, but it’s an after-thought, as the question of how to create a liberal economy so often is for the Lib Dems.
5) All-too-often missing from Orange Book-inspired discussion (as indeed it was missing from Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan, in some ways its natural successor) has been the question that’s key to any political party: “Who’d vote for this?” For instance, in the session I did attend Paul Marshall set out some of the ideas he said would be top of his list for an Orange Book v.II: ending the cap on senior public sector executives’ pay being no higher than the Prime Minister’s; local pay-settlements for public sector workers; making strikes illegal in hospitals and schools; and requiring a minimum 50 per cent turn-out for strike ballots. One of those has merit, I think: local pay, as I’ve argued before, is a potentially important way of ensuring we can recruit to vacancies in the poorest areas. The rest strike me as largely symbolic policies likely to use up a lot of political capital and achieving little. Though an Orange Book sympathiser, I’m not an Orange Book purist: there’s no point putting forward authentically liberal policies without knowing how you’d sell them on the doorstep to a sceptical public. That way lies the fate of the FDP.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.