Wednesday, March 02, 2011

GUEST POST How Edward Stourton misunderstood The Orange Book

Simon Titley is a member of the Liberator Collective.

When is an analysis not an analysis? When it’s the latest edition of Radio 4’s ‘Analysis’ programme, titled ‘The Orange Book: Clegg’s Political Lemon?’ and presented by Edward Stourton. It was a disappointing attempt to analyse the influence the The Orange Book has had over the Liberal Democrats. (If you haven’t heard it yet, listen online here).

The programme demonstrated a fault common to most media reports of the inner workings of political parties; London-based journalists just don’t get it. The ‘Westminster Village’ is their comfort zone. It is where political elites propose and dispose. The political grassroots, on the other hand, is a diffuse, messy and confusing world. It is more difficult to comprehend and report, which is why the media resort to simple, hand-me-down narratives.

The template was cast by Labour’s internecine warfare in the 1980s between Neil Kinnock and the Militant tendency. Most members of all mainstream parties bear no resemblance to Militant, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story? The media has framed the debate about internal party politics in terms of a wise and all-knowing elite confronting a backward and unruly membership.

This frame is exploited by each of the party’s elites, who monopolise the language of modernity and maturity to denigrate their own members. Recall how Charles Kennedy, in the wake of the 2005 general election, blamed the Liberal Democrats’ disappointing result on “embarrassing policies introduced by grassroots activists”.

It is in this light that Radio 4’s programme should be seen. David Laws’s central claim – that the Orange Book had served both to ‘modernise’ the Liberal Democrats and to make them fit for government – was accepted without question because it suits the media frame.

A programme called ‘Analysis’ ought to, well, analyse. But this episode lacked depth and was notable more for the salient information it left out than for what it included. The Orange Book was described as a “putsch” but there was no analysis of who was behind it. The book was credited to David Laws but there was no mention of his co-editor, hedge-fund millionaire Paul Marshall, who bankrolled the project.

There was no mention of Mark Oaten, who played a key role in the genesis of the Orange Book. And there was no mention of the various ginger groups set up in the early 2000s (such as Liberal Future and the Peel Group), which accompanied the emergence of this right-wing trend.

The programme presented the Orange Book as a coherent project. There was no mention of the infighting that broke out among the book’s authors at the time of publication in 2004. The authors had agreed that each would circulate their drafts to the others before the book went to press. But David Laws infuriated some of his fellow authors by not circulating his chapter (which controversially proposed a system of social insurance).

Then, to avoid more trouble during the September 2004 party conference, Charles Kennedy ordered Laws to cancel his planned book launch event. Meanwhile, Mark Oaten disowned his chapter completely, claiming it had been written by a research assistant and that he hadn’t even read it.

More importantly, the programme failed to analyse where the Orange Book project is going. There was no mention of the role of Paul Marshall’s CentreForum think tank and its Coalition 2.0 exercise, which is now the focus of the right-wingers’ strategy. The plan appears to be to lock the Liberal Democrats into a longer-term pact with the Tories. If the right’s coalition exit strategy is not to exit, one might have thought this was worth a mention.

There was no exploration of the lack of democratic legitimacy of the Orange Bookers’ rise to power. At no stage has the party ever been formally asked whether it wanted an ideological shift from social liberalism to classical liberalism. The right-wingers have pursued their goals almost wholly through extra-constitutional means. The avoidance of open debate suggests they lack confidence in their ability to win any arguments.

There was no analysis of why the current right-wing trend emerged when it did, around the time of Charles Kennedy’s election as Liberal Democrat leader in 1999. Most of the people in what we call ‘the right wing’ are ideological shape-shifters, who were social democratic and pro-merger in the 1980s, then Blairite and pro-Project in the 1990s.

Kennedy’s election effectively put an end to ‘The Project’ (Paddy Ashdown’s plan to bind the Liberal Democrats to Labour), which Labour’s landslide in 1997 had made redundant in any case. The right therefore needed an alternative ideological flag of convenience. To the extent that the right’s attachment to neoliberalism is sincere, the programme failed to challenge David Laws (or anyone else) about the continuing validity of neoliberalism after the recent financial crisis has thoroughly discredited that ideology.

The programme took the Orange Book on its own terms as a serious political tract. But the book turns out to be mostly a rag-bag of half-baked ideas. Since few people have bothered to read it, the actual content is not that important. Instead, the book’s role has been more symbolic – as a rallying point for the right and a lightning rod for left-wing opposition.

The claim that the 2007 leadership election campaign was between “two Orange Bookers” is questionable. Both candidates wrote a chapter in the Orange Book but both chapters were about international policy and not economic liberalism. The leadership election was notable for the avoidance of any ideological debate. The programme didn’t enquire why Nick Clegg effectively hid his right-wing aims until after he became leader. His consequent lack of a mandate to steer the party rightwards wasn’t explored.

In its report of the social liberal reaction, the programme failed to mention the response to the Orange Book, Reinventing the State. The casual listener would have been left with the impression that only the right wing is doing any thinking. Also, social liberalism and social democracy were conflated throughout the programme. Those of us who remember the era of the merger, when there was mutual hostility between the SDP and the Liberal left, know differently!

This is probably why the programme failed to notice one significant (and unintended) effect the Orange Book had on the Liberal Democrats, which was to end the taboo on ideological argument that had existed within the party since the merger.

The programme’s claim that the coalition wouldn’t have happened without the Orange Book is rubbish. A coalition with the Tories was the Orange Bookers’ wet dream. Ironically, it happened despite the Orange Book rather than because of it. One year before the 2010 general election, right-wingers succeeded in toppling Chris Rennard as the party’s chief executive and election campaign head. Nick Clegg installed a team of right-wingers to run the campaign but they made a complete hash of it, with a net loss of seats.

Coalition is a creature of circumstance. The Orange Bookers got what they wanted only because the election result left the Liberal Democrats with little viable choice, as the overwhelming vote at the special conference subsequently demonstrated. The Orange Bookers might have played a more significant role if the parliamentary arithmetic had been different, with an equal possibility of a coalition with either the Tories or Labour. Then, we would have seen a very nasty factional campaign to ensure the party went into coalition with the Tories and not Labour.

Radio 4’s programme was a sloppy piece of journalism. Given the importance of the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners, listeners deserved better. What conclusions might a better-made programme have reached?

First, it would have recognised that the Orange Book is a symptom and not a cause. The present phase of right-wing machinations began in the late 1990s and the book was just one product of this intrigue (albeit a high-profile one).

Second, the programme would have grasped that most of party’s leading right-wingers are ideological tarts who have regularly switched from one political fad to another. The ideology they profess at any given time is less about fundamental values, more about tactical positioning. For them, the strategy has always been to say “me too” to the political establishment’s flavour of the week, in the belief that conforming to orthodoxy will provide a short cut to power.

Sure, there are some true believers in neoliberal ideology, but they will be abandoned when it is expedient, just as the right eventually dumped the Jenkinsite social democrats in the mid-1990s.

The real divide within the Liberal Democrats has never really been about ideology. On one side is a self-appointed elite convinced that it knows best; that politics is all about the people at the top; that if we want to be “serious about power” then we must become more centralised and jettison party democracy; and that the job of party members is to shut up and deliver the leaflets.

And then there is the alternative view; that democracy is not about a passive choice between brands but about an active choice between competing values; and that politics is healthiest when it involves ordinary people, living similar lives to those amongst whom they campaign, empowering local people to take and use power.

The Orange Book was really just another exercise in elite manoeuvring. But if Edward Stourton had read Liberator instead of relying on inexperienced researchers, he would have known that already.


Z said...

First part's ok, but bit of a hatchet job thereafter, no? Is there any actual proof for any of your claims?

Simon Titley said...

Yes there is. All of these events were reported in the press and/or Liberator at the time.

Since this is not an academic paper, however, it is not supplied with copious footnotes.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with some of these (although I think that in terms of official party policy, the 'Orange Bookers' have not been very successful). But why do you claim that we did relatively badly in the election because Lord Rennard resigned? As much as I admire him for his campaigning nouse, I'm not sure he would have done much better.

Simon Titley said...

@Anonymous – “In terms of official party policy, the ‘Orange Bookers’ have not been very successful.” I agree, and that is because, as I originally said, the Orange Bookers have tended to avoid open debate and by-pass the party’s constitutional processes. They have never tried to run slates in party elections or propose motions to party conference. They are proceeding by other means.

I did not claim we did relatively badly in the general election because Lord Rennard resigned per se, but because Rennard's replacements (John Sharkey et al) ran a misguided campaign. In particular, the balance between the air war and the ground war was tipped too heavily in favour of the former; there was no attempt to integrate the general and local election campaigns; the team had no idea how to capitalise on ‘Cleggmania’ and effectively abandoned the target seat strategy after the first TV debate. I have my criticisms of Rennard, but I doubt he would have made such elementary mistakes.

Rick P said...

"Since few people have bothered to read it, the actual content is not that important. Instead, the book’s role has been more symbolic – as a rallying point for the right and a lightning rod for left-wing opposition."

It sounds like you haven't read it either, Titley.

You claim "the right" haven't argued openly for party policy. Why is it that no one outside of the party has ever really heard of the "left" apart from stereotypes of grumpy old men with beards and sockdals? It's because of getting out there and becoming MPs and trying to win leadership positions and inspire the party, you think politics is one eternal fight between armchair activists and "the elite", a fight, so framed, which the good guys presumably never win.

A lot of people would join the Lib Dems and vote for them if they thought the LDs were a serious party. Your rant here just confirms their worst prejudices of us, that we're only interested in internecine party warfare and pretend politics, not the actual detail of governing.

Simon Titley said...

@Rick P – My word, you are grumpy. But then posting at 2.40am is rarely a good idea.

For the record, I read the Orange Book when it was first published and reviewed it here:

Regarding your final paragraph, if you think internal disputes are harming the party’s reputation, I would simply ask: who started the factionalism? Who set up the ginger groups and indulged in all the plotting? Who has tried to hijack the party without the members’ consent? Who stage-managed provocative ‘back-me-or-sack-me’ confrontations at party conference? If you seek a culprit for any “internecine party warfare”, don’t blame the left.

PS: It’s interesting that all three critics to have commented so far have hidden behind pseudonyms.

The Lancashires said...

Simon, Good article and a good point of view but I don't agree entirely. I have always been pretty well aware of the politics of Nick Clegg, David Laws etc. I don't think they concealled their views. I agree that the Orange Book is not a coherant agenda but nor was Reinventing the State.

I must be a rarity, a grassroots Liberal who believes that the state has grown too big and we need to emphasise personal freedom more over state solutions. Aparently I should be a westminister based elitist. I think it's a bit unfair to describe people like Clegg and Laws as Ideological Tarts.

As for internicine warfare, I don't think the "Ginger groups" you refer to are any more provocative than others from the so called left of the party. It's good we disagree from time to time. I would describe these groups as the conservative (with a small c) wing of the party, clinging to policies that desperatly need updating.

I think it would have been easier for politicians in the party to progress if they agreed with the wishy washy economic policies we had in the early 90s and to push for tax and spend on everything. That would have been rewarded with big rounds of applause from the conference.

Our campaign was a bit lacklustre because it was a bit like a photocopy of a photocopy of community politics. We had the advantage in our techniques ten years ago but the campaigns department just kept on with more of the same. Oldham East and Saddleworth was the first by-election I have helped in where I thought our campaigning techniques were behind Labours.

Simon Titley said...

@Neil – You are right that David Laws always nailed his ideological colours to the mast. But consider what Nick Clegg said during the 2007 leadership election (in Liberator’s Q&A with both candidates), when asked whether he would regard being elected as leader a mandate to take party policy in a particular direction: “Trying to split the party into ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘economic’ or ‘social’ liberal, makes no sense to me.” Pretty ecumenical, you would have thought. Yet once he was elected, he surrounded himself with a kitchen cabinet comprising many of the key figures behind right-wing intrigue in the party (notably Ian Wright, Neil Sherlock, Chris Fox and Paul Marshall), and proceeded to support their agenda of replacing social liberalism with economic liberalism. If that is what he wanted to do, he should have said so clearly during the leadership election campaign. Then we would have found out how popular economic liberalism really is.

My description of “ideological tarts” was not meant for David Laws or even Nick Clegg, however. Instead, take a look at the people who are involved in Liberal Democrats in Public Relations (a front organisation), who also regularly attended Ian Wright’s secret caucus meetings and who still go to Neil Sherlock’s secret ‘Santa Fe’ gatherings. You’ll find that most of these figures were social democratic and pro-merger in the 1980s, then Blairite and pro-Project in the 1990s, before embracing neoliberalism in the 2000s. I await their next move with interest.

You say “As for internecine warfare, I don't think the ‘Ginger groups’ you refer to are any more provocative than others from the so called left of the party.” Really? During the 2000s, the only ginger groups (apart from the brief-lived Beveridge Group) were on the right of the party. It is only recently, with the belated creation of the Social Liberal Forum, that we have seen any response from the left. Moreover, the SLF holds open elections and is open about who is involved. The same cannot be said of the various right-wing groups, which tend to operate in secret.

And we talk here of “the left” but actually social liberals constitute an overwhelming majority of party members and have always been the mainstream of the party. This is because the left was complacent and thought it unnecessary to organise factions until the influence of the right-wing minority had reached an unacceptable point.

You refer back to the “wishy-washy” economic policies of the early 1990s, but isn’t the problem today altogether different? That neoliberalism crashed in flames during the financial crisis of 2008, yet a small but influential group of Liberal Democrats want us to hug that redundant ideology closer?

Finally, I agree entirely that our campaign techniques are looking tired. See Chris Davies’s excellent critique of the Old & Sad by-election for a good analysis:

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I listened to the programme and at no point did Stouton 'accept without question' Laws' claims about the Orange Book. He was actually very skeptical of his claims, as was reflected by his choice of Grayson as an alternative view. Grayson actually stated that at the time 'it wasn't supported by many in the party' with a discussion of both grassroots and parliamentary party.