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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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.