Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Orange Book: Still Absurd After All These Years

There has been more inaccurate material written about the "Orange Book" than just about every other recent Liberal publication combined.

I described it at the time [http://www.theguardian.com/society/2004/sep/03/nhs2000.liberaldemocrats] as "quite an absurd and ill-timed set of policies that seem more to do with self-advancement than the party's election prospects."  That is still true.  What I and others took time to appreciate, though, is that it was far from a coherent and pre-planned set of ideas, but a suite of disparate thoughts from disgruntled Parliamentarians.  While they were happy to write a set of articles that, combined, added up to a deliberate attempt to undermine the presentation of the Party's pre-manifesto (and in so doing undermine Lib Dem electoral fortunes), they were certainly not all signed up to the timing.  One of them privately confirmed to me that he felt conned and used in a stunt.

The articles themselves largely reflected the personal hobbyhorses of individual authors.  Some, such as Steve Webb's, were faith-based.  Nick Clegg's piece on EU reform ironically would have been better received in the 2014 elections than the lines that those institutions should stay broadly as they are.  Much of it was pretty turgid, with only the chapters by its co-editors Paul Marshall and David Laws providing the controversy.

More important to remember is that it was hardly that new at the time.  I have many tracts written by people then regarded as Liberal Democrat policymakers in Westminster, such as sometime Clegg adviser Julian Astle, espousing the same sort of unfettered free-trade, 'we must never be seen to be left-wing' propaganda - but from the period of Paddy Ashdown's leadership. His successor Charles Kennedy, who let his frustration at the damage caused by the Orange Book be known, sowed some of the seeds by encouraging the then tiny organisation centred around Mark Oaten, Liberal Future.  David Laws had entertained a role as something of a controversialist, emphasised when the late Conrad Russell and I supported him in resisting for sound economic reasons a Conference attempt by Steve Webb to promote restoring the earnings link.

Liberator's reaction at the time can be viewed at http://www.liberator.org.uk/media/lib-0904.pdf.

Today the book finally got the launch that the long-quiet Paul Marshall cancelled at the time due to the incendiary reaction it caused within the party.  Due to its timing during the working day, I was not there; but from observation the event was what James Graham would have described as a circle jerk.  It was most notable for an appallingly male-dominated line-up; giving a platform to Conservatives and others well beyond the pale of the Liberal Democrat mainstream; in the main, deliberately emphasising a political divide that Norman Lamb described as false between economic and social liberals within the Liberal Democrats; and a refreshingly na├»ve absence of electoral political reality, as Stephen Tall (promoting local pay, emphatically rejected only two years ago by precisely the poorest areas that Stephen mentions) puts it:

'All-too-often missing from Orange Book-inspired discussion (as indeed it was missing from Jeremy Browne’sRace 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.'


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