The past few years have not been particularly comfortable for the free-market wing of the Liberal Democrats. The result of the 2015 general election hit the entire party hard, but it left the party’s economically liberal flank weakened in particular, as much of the blame for the result was laid firmly at its feet by a vocal minority of party activists.
In the years that followed, there have been precious few victories for the so-called “Orange Bookers” (named after the free-market Liberals’ most influential text). Many Orange-Book MPs, such as David Laws and Jeremy Browne, lost their seats and retreated from the party, while those who remained have prefered to focus on socially liberal objectives such as assisting refugees.
Neither Tim Farron nor Vince Cable was the natural choice of Orange Bookers for leader (despite Cable being a contributor to the Orange Book). As such, at a grassroots level, economically liberal activists have chiefly focused on resisting the party’s more statist urges, as opposed to setting any kind of policy agenda.
There are signs that this is beginning to change. Liberal Reform, the party’s pressure group – of which I was recently elected Co-Chair – has seen a surge in support in recent weeks, buoyed by the findings in a recent BMG survey that a sizable share of the party’s most loyal voters are themselves Orange Bookers.
This shows that for the party to grow, groups like Liberal Reform must regain influence. Building that influence naturally takes time, but the foundations have been laid over the past months since the party’s gathering in Brighton, with Liberal Reform drawing up a new mission statement that commits us to the values of competitive markets and individual freedom.
Beyond this, we have taken steps to improve the way we set the party’s agenda, through mechanisms such as interviewing the party’s prospective candidates for the London mayoralty, in which all candidates were asked about topics of particular interest to Orange Bookers, including Uber and building on the green belt.
At a time when classical liberal values appear to be under threat across the UK’s political spectrum, it has never been more vital that groups such as Liberal Reform continue to develop and promote a pro-market, pro-freedom agenda within political parties. The rise of authoritarian statism across the Western world will not be combated by sitting on the sidelines, and that’s why we’re willing to get our hands dirty, playing our part in its defeat.
During the coalition, the Liberal Democrats earned themselves a reputation for their trust in the market and fiscal responsibility, and with hard work, time, and resources, there’s never been a better opportunity to make the party the natural home of economic liberalism, designed to meet the challenges of complex economies, with freedom at the heart of its policymaking and campaigning.
It is self-evident why these ambitions cannot be realised in the Labour Party, but it is also important to understand that any attempt to achieve them in the Conservatives is foolhardy.
For a start, personal liberty has never been at the forefront of Conservative thinking, as it often clashes with the socially conservative outlook of many of its members.
The Conservatives had to be dragged against their will towards supporting same-sex marriage, and the same can now be said about the legalisation of cannabis. On immigration too, the party is far from liberal. Even on economic liberalism, the Tories struggle. They instead, all too often, appear on the side of what the former executive director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, described in our 2013 publication The Coalition and Beyond as “corporate welfare”, where vested interest groups seek to protect their wealth, all too often at the expense of the poor.
Support for the market without the ambition to tackle concentrations of power cannot be described as economic liberalism in any meaningful sense.
Individuals who believe in economic and social liberalism should stop wasting their time trying to make the Tories liberal – it’s a fool’s errand. Instead, as laid out in the Orange Book almost 15 years ago, they should focus on cementing economic liberalism within the Liberal Democrats, and this is at the heart of what Liberal Reform seeks to do.