Daily Archives: 14 January 2008

The Orange Book Delusion

The enduring irritation about the Orange Book is not its content, which was broadly uncontentious, but the mythical book which everyone who never read it imagines exists.

So once again my heart sinks when I read Nick Assinder claim:

In his first major speech since winning the job, Mr Clegg has pretty much adopted the agenda set out in the controversial Orange Book, authored by party frontbencher David Laws and others (including Mr Clegg himself) in 2004.

On one level, that is correct; as correct as it is banal. Most of the chapters in the Orange Book do little other than recite existing party policy, with a perhaps a slight difference in emphasis. Very few Lib Dems disagree with the notion that social and economic liberalism both have important roles to play, neither the economic liberals behind the Orange Book nor the social liberals behind Reinventing the State. In that respect, the Orange Book failed to move us forward. You might just as well argue that both Kennedy and Campbell “adopted” the Orange Book agenda.

The real issue is to what extent Clegg has moved in a David Laws direction. The answer to that is, he most certainly has. But adopted the agenda set out in David Laws’ chapter on health? Nope. Adopted Laws’ pugnacious stance in his chapter on liberalism? Quite the opposite. Given that the speech was about public services and philosophy and Laws’ chapters were the main ones on both, these facts matter quite a lot.

This isn’t a debate about a book, it is a debate about a general direction. And if that debate is to be at all meaningful, it should focus more on practicalities than principles: this isn’t an Oxford Union debate. As it stands, I broadly welcome the stance laid out by Nick Clegg on Saturday; I remain deeply sceptical about health insurance. So does that make me an Orange Booker or not?

Perhaps one day someone will publish the definitive book on social liberalism. The Orange Book was not it. I do wish people would stop waving it in my face and actually read it.

Localism: the first big test?

The battlelines over localism are being formed in Scotland. What happens there directly affects the debate over decentralisation in England.

I haven’t been following this closely but my understanding is this: the SNP, which over time plan to replace council tax with a system of local income tax, have worked out a deal with local government whereby local authorities agree to freeze council tax in exchange for a very significant reduction in ringfencing by the Scottish executive. Labour are now hopping up and down making scary predictions about how this will hurt vulnerable people.

In a sense, they both have a point. Local government in Scotland as well as England has very few revenue raising powers and any squeeze will necessitates cuts being made somewhere, and it would not be surprising if the quietest voices had their funding cut the most. But Labour’s solution to this problem is simply to clobber local government with red tape, not to give it more freedom.

There’s another factor that needs to be considered as well: electoral reform in local government last year and the huge numbers of balanced councils it has produced will mean that this year’s budgets will be under more intense scrutiny than ever before. If Labour wishes to defend the vulnerable, by and large they will have their chance, but in the council chamber not Holyrood.

On balance then, I side with the SNP here. Sadly, if Labour are like this in opposition, it doesn’t bode well for getting localism out of them in government either.

Which of these two characters would you most trust with the economy?

Donkey and Waldorf

One is an annoying talking donkey who came to prominence by getting in the face of a grumpy ogre (who goes by the name of Gordon Brown). The other is the shorter half of a former double act of curmudgeons with an interest in variety performance. And the answer to this question matters a lot: it directly affects the electoral chances of the two main UK opposition parties.

For the past few days, the Tories have gone on the offensive on economics. Following a lead given by his Shadow Chancellor, David Cameron said on the Andrew Marr Show this morning that nationalising Northern Rock would be “the most complete humiliation and failure for the government”. Meanwhile, Vince Cable has spent the last couple of months insisting that nationalisation is the only viable short term option for the company.

And let’s be honest, both Osborne and Cable have had a good few months recently. Agree with it or not, it has to be said that Osborne’s proposal to raise the IHT threshold did him a lot of favours, while Vince Cable’s tenure as Acting Lib Dem Leader won plaudits from across the political spectrum.

All things being equal however, a cursory look at the men’s CVs rather suggests that Cable is the safer pair of hands to run the economy than Osborne. A doctorate, policy advisor to the Kenyan government, lecturer, civil servant, former Chief Economist at Shell, advisor on the Brundtland Commission… Cable broadcasts experience and it comes across. Gideon Osborne on the other hand is a history graduate with some journalistic experience and lots more experience as a political adviser on both sides of the benches. The brutal reason why Cable got all the airtime over Northern Rock in October-November was that it was clear that he reeked of authenticity while Osborne rarely made it further than the partisan soundbites.

Cameron and Osborne’s latest assault is an attempt to regain the agenda on the economy; a tacit acknowledgement that since their IHT coup, both the government and Cable have outmaneuvred them. But once again, does it add up to much more than a bit of partisanship? Their argument is that the government put off a decision because of the prospect of an October election and they cite an offer by Lloyds TSB as one that should have been more seriously considered.

But does this charge stack up? Look at it this way; if Darling had gone for a quick sale (which according to Mervyn King would have involved a whopping loan to Lloyds TSB), would we now be in a remarkably similar situation with Cameron denouncing the government for rushing into a decision because they were planning an early election? Indeed, isn’t that rather similar to the scenario we had in 2005 with Michael Howard attacking Brown for bailing out Rover (only several times larger by order of magnitude)?

My own instincts tell me that regardless of the rights and wrongs of the whole credit crunch debacle in general and Northern Rock in particular, rushing into a quick sale would have been a remarkably irresponsible thing to do when it directly affected billions of pounds of taxpayers money and thousands of jobs. And that’s even assuming the shareholders would have let them (my grandmother is getting bombarded with letters from SRM at the moment). I appreciate I’m biased but the Tories’ line here doesn’t merely strike me as easy partisan point scoring, but bad policy too.

For a long time I’ve felt that Osborne is one of the Tories’ weakest links. A good marketing man, true, but not one with a particular feel for economics, and one with a whiny tone of voice that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. He is certainly in the wrong job. Cable on the other hand has always been one of the Lib Dems biggest secret weapons. Well, he’s not so secret any more and that could spell trouble for the Conservatives. If the Lib Dems manage to eat into the Tories’ commanding lead as the party most trusted on the economy, then things really could start to get interesting as it is the Tories’ greatest asset and one of the Lib Dems’ greatest perceived weaknesses. Yet could Cameron even contemplate cutting Osborne loose, his closest ally?

Of course, I’m not the only one thinking the unthinkable here: Tim Montgomerie was arguing for him to be made Party Chairman/Tsar back in October. Tim wasn’t attacking Osborne for being weak on the economy, but to argue this at a time when Osborne was still basking in his IHT glory said it for him.

Either way, Clegg should not be shy about keeping Cable in the limelight over the next few months; notwithstanding the importance of giving the public a chance to get to know Clegg himself, Cable should now be considered a central part of the party’s appeal and should be seriously exploited, particularly when the Tories use Osborne.