Saturday, 11 August 2012

Lib Dem factions: the Orange Bookers

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

The modern Liberal Democrats are a fairly odd fusion of quite a few variants of the liberal tradition and two brands of social democracy. Couple this with a democratic party structure where anyone and everyone has an equal ability to speak, make policy and vote for the leader and what you end up with is quite a few factions within the party. So I've decided to do a series of posts looking at the various factions in order to do an overview of each of them and their influence within the party.

However, I should preface this by saying that, despite my talk of factions, the party as a whole is remarkable well united - especially compared to the stark divides in the Conservatives between Cameron 'modernisers' and traditional Thatcherites and in Labour between the socialists and the successors of the Blairites. In fact, the factions within the Lib Dems are probably more accurately described as overlapping but different schools of thought but, despite that, I'm going to continue to use the word factions for the sake of convenience.

In estimating the size of the factions I'm going to look at Lib Dem Voice surveys of party members - which tend to be broadly accurate as a reflection of the mood of the party and what the members are thinking. In particular I'm going to look at questions on economic issues as it's economics which tends to be the most divisive issue in the party - pretty much everyone is broadly unanimous when it comes to things like personal freedoms and civil liberties.

This post will look at the "Orange Booker" faction.

The Orange Bookers

Now, the name of this group is definitely something of a misnomer. The Orange Book itself, a book co-written by several people and dedicated to 'reclaiming liberalism', is fairly divorced from the faction as a whole. For one thing, most people who use the term Orange Booker have never actually read the book. For another, at least one of the contributors to the Orange Book (Vince Cable) considers himself a social democrat and therefore, despite supporting restrictions on the size of the state, by most definitions doesn't really fit into the concept of the Orange Bookers.

With that caveat about the name in place, the Orange Bookers are essentially a mix of libertarians and Gladstonian liberals - people who are very fond of the free market, competition, scaling back the state, free enterprise, lower taxes, etc. They essentially take the view that their should be high amounts of economic freedom and that people are best served by removing the burdens of taxes and the influence of the state over their lives. The exact size of the state and the limits placed on its power and responsibilities is, however, very much up for debate within this faction. It's probably fair to say though that they all want it significantly smaller than it currently is.

Politically, these are the people who are highly supportive of the Clegg leadership, of the Lib Dem role and record in the government and, to take two particularly divisive issues within the party, happy with the decision to back the NHS reforms and with the decision not to vote against higher tuition fees - on the latter because many of them think that the policy of scrapping tuition fees was unrealistic in the first place and that the system brought in by the coalition is much better. They are also highly supportive of the governemnt's current economic strategy and are, if anything, likely to argue that greater steps (such as additional cuts) need to be taken to reduce the deficit as quickly as possible.

EDIT: it's been pointed out to me that a lot of Orange Bookers opposed the NHS reforms and said they should be dropped because they didn't bring enough competition into the health service - though in my experience Orange Bookers were more likely to tolerate the reforms for the sake of government unity even if they weren't particularly happy with them.

Now, the size of this faction is hard to estimate but I'm going to have a stab at it using the most recent question on economic strategy from the latest Lib Dem Voice survey. In it 23% agreed with the statement:
Borrowing more at a time when we already owe so much will simply make matters worse, as the country will have to pay back even more money in the longer term. We have to bring the debt and the deficit under control even if it has some painful effects for the economy in the short term.
This was a change of -4 points from the last survey. So, as a very rough estimate, I'd guess that approximately a quarter to a third of the party can broadly be described as being Orange Bookers.

However, this isn't the whole picture as one leading Orange Booker, Danny Alexander, wrote the last Lib Dem manifesto and is a quarter of the influential 'Quad' which is the ultimate maker of policy decisions in the coalition government. Additionally, there has been a recent and noticeable influx of young and vocal Orange Bookers, many of whom tend to be much more stricter Gladstonian liberals/libertarians than the rest of the faction as a whole - recently founding the Liberal Reform group within the party to promote 'four cornered liberalism'.

Additionally, one of the oldest liberal think tanks, Centre Forum, tends to be broadly aligned with mainstream Orange Booker views, and Nick Clegg, though probably not really part of any faction, is probably closer to the Orange Bookers than he is to any other faction.

As such, this is a faction which can be deemed to be punching well above its weight within the party in terms of its influence on policy and its media profile.

7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. The front cover of The Orange Book says "reclaiming liberalism", not "reclaiming economic liberalism". I'd hope there aren't many LDs who'd disagree with the basic visions of personal, economic, social and political liberalism.

    "In particular I'm going to look at questions on economic issues as its [sic] economics which tends to be the most divisive issue in the party - pretty much everyone is unanimous when it comes to things like personal freedoms and civil liberties." Where economic issues include fiscal policy, monetary policy, taxation, business, jobs, pay, welfare, housing, health, education, transport and other public services? I can also think of many civil liberty issues on which the party is very divided!

    I think you therefore overstate - even with your provisos - the existence of factions or even discernible schools of thought within the party. There are so many issues, many of them with a continuum of views, that it's almost impossible to group people, and very unhelpful to attempt to.

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    1. Those are fair points - and I'll correct those errors you identified now.

      But the fact is that people do label themselves as social liberals or orange bookers or libertarians or social democrats, etc. And I know because I've met them itself. So I don't see anything wrong with attempting to broadly describe the different groups and what proportion of the party they broadly make up - as long as people don't treat what I've written as some sort of 100% accurate accounting of the party (which they shouldn't because it's not).

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  3. Phil - the reason why David Laws and Paul Marshall wanted to "reclaim liberalism" was that they thought that the Liberal Democrats as it was at the time did not believe in the kind of Liberalism that they believed in, which they thought harked back to the Victorian era. In other words classical Liberalism. That was the fundamental shift they wanted to see. They were not proposing any other fundamental change.
    As George hinted, not all of the contributors realised they were part of this project that Laws and Marshall had in mind.
    When the Orange book was published it was at a time (2004) of unprecedented economic growth in all parts of the world. It seemed like the free market had finally answered the economic problem - how to get long term growth evenly spread across the world without boom or bust.
    Unfortunately what was perceived as sustainable growth was in fact a bubble which burst horribly in 2007/8. A good time you would think to abandon free market ideology but perversely even though the Orange Book faction did not really have an answer to what was going on at the time; nationalising Northern Rock was not an idea to be found in the Orange Book, the Orange Book faction continued it's ascendency and Nick Clegg's election as leader of the party confirmed they had won, albeit not very convincingly. A Coalition with the Tories later decisively tilted the balance of power in the party in their direction, but their decision to support George Osborne's budget deficit reduction plans - the root of most of the horrible decisions since the last general election - has backfired as the policy has obviously failed and yet they cannot support an alternative growth strategy without losing face - the same predicament George Osborne is in.
    If ever there is an ideology on the ropes it is this one.

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  4. Yet it seems to be a feature of this sort of economic liberalism that, like much religious belief, people cling to it more strongly and vociferously in the face of contradictory evidence. If cutting isn't working, then it's because there haven't been enough cuts.

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    1. In fairness though, the same kind of belief probably exists with a lot of other political philosophies. And I suppose, if you were to scrap all taxes and regulations and welfare then there probably would be much higher growth - the only problem would be that it would be at a very high social and environmental cost.

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  5. Hmmm... interesting...

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