Thursday, March 23, 2006


A Laws Unto Himself

Tonight’s Question Time features David Laws MP for the Liberal Democrats. There – I saw you flinch. When that shameless stirrer Ken Clarke last week spun that some Lib Dems were really Tories, most Lib Dems will have laughed at the accusation about Ming, been bewildered by the mention of Nick Clegg, known from Vince Cable’s record that it’s untrue… And thought that, with David, Ken probably has a point. Rubbish. A partisan Tory's trying to split us for a laugh, but David’s undoubtedly a Liberal, if an idiosyncratic one – and I’ll examine The Orange Book to prove it.

A lot of people don’t like David Laws, and The Orange Book’s not the only reason why. Several of the reasons are more to do with things associated with him than the man himself – that Tory/Labour-supporting papers often look favourably on him, for example, either through genuine appreciation (for example, I've read stories based on his digging out facts about benefits simply because he does that very effectively) or a Clarke-like attempt to smother him in their embrace, or that before he became an MP he made a lot of money. Well, I’m not fussed about that, and I’m much happier with people making a lot of money and then deciding to go into public service than with people making lots of money as a result of their time in public service.

David Laws: Alex’s Reminiscences

As it happens, I like him, and have always found him easy to get on with – if not always to agree with. I had some dealings with him in my early years on the Federal Policy Committee, though his period as Lib Dem Director of Policy was while I’d stood down from the FPC for the first time. Unlike many, he always assembled a good case and could answer difficult questions on it, which is why I remember him winning me over for a new pensions policy in around 2000. It became the first time I’d spoken on the more conservative economic side in a Conference debate (though against several MPs and aspiring MPs, which was more in character), on the simple basis that I wanted a pensions policy that wouldn’t go bankrupt before I came to claim on it. Pensions and education between them were still by a long way our biggest spending commitments in the 2001 election, but we refused to promise to restore an earnings link that, a couple of decades down the line, there’d be no way we could pay for. I rate Steve Webb highly as well, but when a few years ago he brought populist proposals to the FPC that we do a complete U-turn on that policy, he simply dodged the question of what would happen a little way into the future. So I suspect I share with David – now our Pensions Spokesperson, ironically – a worry about our attitude to pensions provision, at least one Lib Dem dividing line. I also can’t help smiling at the memory of him telling me about canvassing for his first election in Yeovil, when an elderly family friend presented him with possibly the most terrifying question ever put to a Lib Dem candidate on the doorstep: “What do you think of Alex Wilcock?”

I was less impressed with David’s most famous printed contribution to Lib Dem thinking, though I wasn’t one of those who at the party’s 2004 Conference advocated putting him inside a giant wicker Orange Book and burning it on Bournemouth beach. At the time, I was Vice-Chair of the FPC, putting a lot of effort into the consultation process about the Pre-Manifesto, Freedom, Fairness, Trust, and thought some people trying to come up with a bundle of new policies at the last minute when the party would have no chance to vote on them before the election was, well, less than useful. I realised the rest of the party shared this view when I mentioned The Orange Book entirely neutrally at a packed fringe meeting on the Pre-Manifesto on the first night of Conference and the audience broke into spontaneous hissing, one of the few times I’ve been unable to stop myself laughing on a public platform. Feeling I should read the thing rather than just slag it off, I waded through it that week and so was able to slag it off from an informed position. For some reason, people seemed to think my criticism of the Tories when I summated in the Freedom, Fairness, Trust debate later that week was something to do with it: warning people to beware of imitations – yes, even before Mr Balloon, they were trying to sound like Lib Dems on tuition fees and long-term care, but without spending any money – I concluded that “It’s not the first time something’s been marketed as orange, but you’ve been sold a lemon.”

The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism

Surely the most controversial publication by any Liberal Democrats since the party was formed, The Orange Book is far more mediocre than its cheerleaders or its demonisers like to claim. Not as interesting as Passports to Liberty, by a very long way less persuasive than An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, its two main claims to controversy are its timing and, yes, David Laws. I mentioned some of the reasons people aren’t too keen on him earlier, but the timing and content of The Orange Book sum up perhaps the key ones, a peculiar mixture of naïvety and pig-headedness. His speech at Harrogate where he talked about cutting benefits to single parents caused a storm not just because what he said was perceived as right-wing, but because it was seen as dropping on the party from a great height - I should, however, point out that many years on the FPC have made it clear to me that he is far from the only spokesperson to make policy on the hoof (he’s either more brazen or just better-reported). The Liberal Democrats have a lengthy and deliberative process of consultation to create policy, at the end of which we get to vote on it. A spokesperson’s speech coming out of the blue, giving no chance for a vote, and grabbing the headlines over the issues the party was actually debating, is not the best way to start a discussion, still less make friends and influence people. It was, however, entirely in line with the painfully bad timing of The Orange Book.

Had The Orange Book been published for, say, Harrogate Conference this year or Blackpool last year, there would still have been plenty of internal gossip about what this faction ‘meant’, but far less rancour. It would also have meant that fewer people might have bought it, but perhaps more would have read and agreed with it, or at least starting a debate within the party rather than most Lib Dems hurling it into the outer darkness and its band of supporters bleating what martyrs they were. Published just before a General Election and with absolutely zero chance that the new ideas in it could make it to a Manifesto already near completion, all it did was set itself up as an alternative manifesto – and not only did that wind everyone up so much that they wouldn’t listen to what was in it even if it had been brilliant (pretty much the definition of ‘self-defeating’), it just wasn’t up to the job. Paul Marshall’s ‘Introduction’ explicitly tries to make a manifesto of a series of disparate essays, to the obvious later embarrassment of some of its authors, and his attempt to tie them together falls flat. It doesn’t help that it’s by a long way the most dull and poorly written piece in the book, and the fact that Mr Marshall’s apparent financial abilities are in no way matched by literary ones probably meant a lot of people started at the beginning and didn’t make it any further. That’s a shame, less because they’ve missed out on something wonderful than because they were therefore unable to take the heat out of the internal party row by a massed chorus of “Oh, is that it?”

The Orange Content

Few people can now remember most of the essays the book contained on various policy areas, whether the likes of Ed Davey on localism, Susan Kramer on using the market to protect the environment, Paul Marshall (yawn) on pensions or Chris Huhne on international institutions, which was probably the one I most agreed with at the time but also where I saw potential for a row to erupt that didn’t. Steve Webb’s piece is the authoritarian odd one out, thinking the state should have more power – over families – but ducking away from a head-on collision with the pro-marketeers. Even Mark Oaten’s piece was relatively persuasive, despite dropping the really dodgy proposal into his ‘Conclusion’ (sigh). But, be honest, you don’t remember any of those, do you, nor Nick or Vince? No, it’s David Laws’ essay on health that was the radical, pig-headed, naïve and doomed one. His advocacy of a national health insurance scheme has been described by Joe Otten in an excellent demolition as pulling a rabbit out of a hat, which rather sums up David’s tendency to come up with magic solutions that surprise but don’t delight. Not only was it tactically unwise to say the party should dismantle the NHS immediately before a General Election, but the proposal had already been considered by Chris Huhne’s Public Services Commission and roundly rejected. In other words, if the consultation doesn’t work, just pretend it’s never been mentioned before and that it’s a brilliant panacea no-one in their right minds could disagree with. Unfortunately, the party concluded almost to a member that David wasn’t the messiah, but a very naughty boy.

There are two reasons why my blood didn’t boil about David’s health proposals, other than the obvious one that I think he was trying to do some good. Firstly, I knew they’d already been rejected and that, by attempting to bounce them on the party in this way, he’d ensured they were not just dead but buried at a crossroads with a stake through them. Secondly, wonk though I am, I’m still more interested in the big picture than in individual policies, and I thought everyone was reading the wrong chapter. If you want to know what makes David tick, ignore the self-immolating health controversy and turn to his essay applying Liberal philosophy at the beginning. It’s really rather good. Well, up to a point…

David’s Philosophy

David Laws’ first chapter – ‘Reclaiming Liberalism’ – is by my lights roughly 75% good, 20% all over the place and 5% out of place, but in any case easily the most interesting thing in the book. Anyone who believes he’s a Tory should read it. No, anyone who’s a Liberal should read it. You won’t agree with all of it, but I’ve never found an essay on Liberalism yet that didn’t have things I could disagree with in it, even in John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor or in Conrad Russell. David Laws’ personal creed has plenty that I wouldn’t go along with, but I can’t see how it’s possible to read it and not recognise that he’s a Liberal. Lib Dems familiar only with the caricature of David might be surprised by how much and how well he writes on how social liberalism is needed to make freedom meaningful, or how inspiringly he writes on liberal internationalism or personal liberalism. You might be slightly bemused at his detour under political liberalism, but ‘How liberal are the Liberal Democrats?’ is entirely the right question to raise for this sort of analysis, even if I don’t agree with all the answers. His pet phrase is to argue that well-meaning liberals don’t always practise their beliefs but instead choose “Liberalism à la carte,” a persuasive critique of the blind spots that all politicians can develop. Perhaps his holier-than-thou attitude would have been more influential, however, if he’d asked someone from a different school of Liberal thought to read through it and give an honest appraisal of what his own blind spots were (I suspect I’d often do better if I did the same).

Probably the essay’s biggest failing is its complete inability to see that there are ways of meeting the same Liberal principles with different approaches, instead taking every policy in grand dogmatic sweeps, and this is most true of economics. David really needs to make a little more effort not to act as if he’s unquestionably right all the time. When Charles Kennedy wrote in the foreword that “Not all of the ideas… are existing party policy, but all are compatible with our Liberal heritage,” it was as good a warning to the writers as to the readers. David dismisses Liberal economics all the way from the 1930s to the 1980s as a corporatist cop-out, seeing the Liberal Democrats as only just starting to head back in the right direction in the 1990s. I’m sure that, like the Tories, the Liberals had elements of ‘me-tooism’ about then-exciting, then-modern socialism, and he’s right that the Alliance’s obsession with putting itself in ‘the middle’ was difficult to base on solid principle. However, David’s essay seems to make market solutions a dogmatic imperative, without stopping to consider when they might not deliver the best value to the taxpayer, whether there are alternatives or even if they’d work at all. For example, in the ‘corporatist’ 1970s he dismisses so entirely, there was a distinctively Liberal policy (now all but withered to dust, one of my few large regrets in mostly the best policy landscape for us post-war) of industrial democracy and worker participation, bridging political and economic Liberalism and the absolute opposite of soggy socialism – anti-state, non-unionised, bottom-up. If I’ve been aware of it for a good many years, David must be, and I can only think that he fails to mention this inconvenient fact because it would get in the way of his ‘us or them’ thesis. He mentions opposition to monopoly and 1930s market failure, but that brief aside merely draws attention to this as his biggest blind spot. While many Liberal policies over the years have been directed against private monopoly, he fails to address other monopolies than state ones, or what to do in the event of other market failure – as well as raising the question, if he admits the market failed in 1930s (and that’s the only point at which he’s prepared to admit any such thing), does he have any alternative answer to such catastrophic failures or would he just have shut his eyes and hoped it would go away?

Bizarrely, ‘Reclaiming Liberalism’ lets the Tories get away with ‘economic liberalism’, and commits one of the worst essayist’s sins: producing a highly contentious and unsupported new assertion in his conclusion. At the time, it was the bit of the essay that really leapt out at me, and, yes, Post Office privatisation has since become a bit of an issue in the Lib Dems. Well, I read it here first. One of the reasons that I was sorry to miss the Harrogate Conference was that I’d have liked to hear the debate, as - some way from the ‘if you have anything to do with privatisation you must be a Tory’ earache - Richard Gadsden’s argument against was quite persuasive, but so were some of the arguments in favour. Less impressive were those along the lines of ‘we must be disciplined / send a signal / win over Rupert Murdoch in one bound’ rather than on the policy’s merits, and unfortunately its sudden appearance in David’s essay was just such a piece of willy-waving. No justification was supplied for suddenly springing Post Office privatisation as one of ten ‘minimum’ items for a Liberal programme, and it’s far more specialised than any of the others, making it stand out still further. There are Liberal cases for and against, but not all privatisations have been the best option – compare Telecom, mostly good with some bad features, with rail, mostly bad but with some nice trains – and again his naïve cheerleading for private ownership fails even to mention other Liberal economic alternatives such as mutualism. Notably, the version of this policy that finally made it through a Conference was after assiduous consultation, rather than David’s habit of ‘bouncing’, and by combining it with a return to the workers’ participation he overlooks. His authoritarian tone on single parents (yes, that was in there too) also sits poorly with his excellent piece on personal liberalism. And his list of illiberal measures by Lib Dems excludes councils who’ve banned drinking in public, perhaps an oversight but I suspect because there are several signs that his own ‘à la carte well-meaning illiberal instincts’ emerge on law and order.

His ten-policy ‘minimum’ list for a Liberal programme seems less a rational set of the most important issues than an attempt to dissociate himself from other parts of the party and claim they aren’t Liberal if they don’t follow his precise prescription – like those Green Party spin doctors who say what the Lib Dems must do to be ‘green’ in their view by setting out differences, not looking at where any party would start from (incidentally, you may have noticed that independent groups like Friends of the Earth said the Lib Dem manifesto last year was greener on a number of issues than the Green Party’s, so don’t think that because they’re small and dogmatic their prescription must be stronger). If you rightly want to seize the environmental agenda for the Liberal Democrats, however, David isn’t much help to you. His essay ignores the environmental aspects of modern Liberalism, so in the complete absence of that development of the last couple of decades and the participatory agenda of a couple of decades before, and having rejected the ‘corporatism’ developed in the earlier part of the last century, he’s in the rather striking position for a ‘moderniser’ of leaving his philosophical innovation stalled somewhere around 1908.

I like David, and though I often disagree with him, when he sounds thoughtful he can be very persuasive. It’s just when he tries to lay down the law out of nowhere that he gets my back up. I hope he won’t shoot from the hip too much on Questionable Time tonight, and that when he gives his own views rather than giving the party line he decides to be thoughtful rather than prescriptive. Equally, don’t assume that because he doesn’t share some of your own prescriptions for Liberalism that he isn’t a Liberal too. Both David and his detractors would do better to recognise that asking questions and having arguments rather than just accepting a revealed truth is pretty much what Liberals do.

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Excellent article, Alex: thanks.
Yes, well said.

I'll risk saying this before QT tonight. The perception of a party's position on the mythical left-right axis depends to a significant extent on how much it talks about a) poverty, inequality, public services, and b) markets, free trade, prosperity.

If Laws wasn't there putting his foot in it for us from time to time, there would be a perceived leftwards drift which would be damaging. He is doing the party rather more good than he is doing himself, and that should be applauded.
Excellent article.

I especially liked that last sentence. One of the things which attracted me to the LibDems (apart from being liberal of course) was that the party encourages discussion and debate.
Yes very good. I am an admirer of Laws - for the sort of reasons Joe gives.

His chapter on Liberalism in the Orange Book struck me as extremely good. I should like to see him revise it because the whole Orange book is spoiled by poor editing. One of his strenths is that he resists the Party's tendency to impose "greenish" lifestyles on everyone on sub-puritan grounds.

I disliked the chapter on international institutions (perhaps because I have worked in and with them). And I was not impressed with the Davey proposals to have still fewer councilors.

The book might have been improved by inclusion of an extract from Grimond's PErsoanl Manifesto!
I really like David Laws and think that he is one of the best and smartest politicians the Lib Dems got. Without him and some other MPs such as Cable, Clegg, Browne, Lamb, Moore and Campbell I couldn't possibly even think of supporting the Lib Dems. So it is good to remember, that Laws also brings at least some support for your party.

I think also, that this comment by Laws is worth to read. He says: "The Orange Book, which I co-wrote, was an attempt to persuade the party to value all the liberal strands - including the economic. The book was caricatured as an attempt to turn the clock back to some dry Gladstonian liberalism of the 19th century. It was never any such thing. But I accept my responsibility to show that I and my Orange Book colleagues are as committed to social liberalism, or social justice, as they are. If I was not, I would be in the Conservative party or pursuing my own financial interests in the City - less bumpy career paths than being a Lib Dem MP."
As someone from a different school of Liberal though than you, I'd like to point out one flaw in your otherwise excellent analysis.

You say, that "David’s essay seems to make market solutions a dogmatic imperative, without stopping to consider when they might not deliver the best value to the taxpayer, whether there are alternatives or even if they’d work at all."

And you express you satisfaction of the fact that "by attempting to bounce them on the party in this way, he’d ensured they were not just dead but buried at a crossroads with a stake through them."

Let's just imagine for a minute that there exists a market-based solution to arrange health care more effectively, so that with the same amount of money or less can be provided better-quality and quicker services. Isn't it in that case dogmatic to turn down a market based solution offhand and rejoice because it is now definitely buried?

Of course David Laws should do more in order to prove, that the market-based solution would be better and more efficient than the NHS, and he obviously hasn't made enough to prove his case in the Orange Book. He could for instance provide some calculations and compare NHS with insurance-based health care systems in other countries.

But I think that as somebody recently pointed out in the, the NHS is too much of a sacred cow of India, probably because anybody who would have the courage to challenge it risks to fall out of the graceof the voters. And that's particularily true within the Lib Dems. Having a publicly produced health care system shouldn't be an inherent value. Isn't it more important to provide as good service as possible with as low cost as possible?

Another thing, concerning your remarks on industrial democracy, democracy and liberalism aren't always the same thing. Imagine for instace situations, where other people would have a vote on who you are going to marry. Democratic perhaps, but not very liberal. Or imagine, that you have bought a house, and then other people are going to arrange a vote on who, you or somebody else, is going to live in that house. Likewise, there is nothing liberal in depriving the right of decision from the owner. The employees are already payed to work in the company, and they have the choice to walk out and set a co-operative, if they want to participate in the decision making. That way, as they have invested a part of the capital, they also will bear their part of the risk which their vote will affect. But that's actually another story.
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