The Orange Book gave the Lib Dems cohesion that is now slipping away. Photo: Flickr/Phillip Taylor
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Orange Bookers call for a stronger Lib Dem message

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Orange Book, and those originally galvanised by this liberal bible are distressed by the Lib Dems’ lack of direction.

“I know this is heresy, but our whole message for the general election is not about what we believe in.”

These were the words of former Home Office minister and the “Orange Booker’s Orange Booker” according to some in his party, Jeremy Browne. He was addressing a fringe event during Lib Dem party conference based on the 10th anniversary of the Orange Book – a collection of essays that established the Lib Dems as a party of a more economically liberal centre ground.

Browne was decrying the fact that his party is going into this election with a vague, centrist message – concentrating on coalition with either of the two main parties – rather than championing the more cohesive liberal message of ten years ago. Though Browne didn’t contribute to the book, he has said that he basks “in the reflected glory” of those who wrote for it.

His argument is that the “biggest problem” for his party is that “wealth creation, people starting businesses, people trying to start a trade”, etc, are the voters who “should feel the Lib Debs are empathetic with them, but they don’t. They don’t see that as where our heart beats.

“We have become too trusting of the state; we should be in favour of big people, not big government.”

The dilution of the Orange Bookers’ defining economic message is not the only gripe of those on the Lib Dems’ right wing. The book’s co-editor, Paul Marshall, told the same audience, at an event held by the IEA, that “the way the party is presenting itself is very muddle-headed”. According to him, this is because it “disagrees with itself” on three key areas: delivery of public services, the nature of markets, and equality.

The Orange Bookers are not necessarily calling for a wholesale return to the book's teachings of ten years ago. In fact, it wasn’t an entirely consistent text, and had essays in it that jarred with one another. But what they are looking for is a reason to “reinvent the Lib Dems if they didn’t already exist”, some soul-searching to which Browne referred. And this can only be done with some semblance of a plan to unite the party’s thinking on economics and social policy that differs from Labour and the Conservatives.

Yet this aim seems near impossible at the moment, due to enduring tensions within the party. As Lib Dem Voice editor Stephen Tall puts it: “To many in our party, ‘Orange Booker’ is a term of abuse”.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Europe's elections show why liberals should avoid fatalism

France, Germany and the Netherlands suggest there is nothing inevitable about the right's advance.

Humans are unavoidably pattern-seeking creatures. We give meaning to disparate events where little or none may exist. So it is with Brexit and Donald Trump. The proximity of these results led to declarations of liberalism's demise. After decades of progress, the tide was said to have unavoidably turned.

Every election is now treated as another round in the great duel between libralism and populism. In the Netherlands, the perennial nativist Geert Wilders was gifted outsize attention in the belief that he could surf the Brexit-Trump wave to victory. Yet far from triumphing, the Freedom Party finished a distant second, increasing its seats total to 20 (four fewer than in 2010). Wilders' defeat was always more likely than not (and he would have been unable to form a government) but global events gifted him an aura of invincibility.

In France, for several years, Marine Le Pen has been likely to make the final round of the next presidential election. But it was only after Brexit and Trump's election that she was widely seen as a potential victor. As in 2002, the front républicain is likely to defeat the Front National. The winner, however, will not be a conservative but a liberal. According to the post-Trump narrative, Emmanuel Macron's rise should have been impossible. But his surge (albeit one that has left him tied with Le Pen in the first round) suggests liberalism is in better health than suggested.

In Germany, where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland was said to be remorselessly advancing, politics is returning to traditional two-party combat. The election of Martin Schulz has transformed the SPD's fortunes to the point where it could form the next government. As some Labour MPs resign themselves to perpeutal opposition, they could be forgiven for noting what a difference a new leader can make.

2016 will be forever remembered as the year of Brexit and Trump. Yet both events could conceivably have happened in liberalism's supposed heyday. The UK has long been the EU's most reluctant member and, having not joined the euro or the Schengen Zone, already had one foot outside the door. In the US, the conditions for the election of a Trump-like figure have been in place for decades. For all this, Leave only narrowly won and Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than her opponent. Liberalism is neither as weak as it is now thought, nor as strong as it was once thought.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.