“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”.