A curate’s egg of an article – The Guardian asks, “Will the Liberal Democrats survive the coalition?”

by Stephen Tall on June 2, 2010

There’s an interesting in-depth feature in today’s Guardian, focusing on the future prospects for the Lib Dems now the party is in government: Will the Liberal Democrats survive the coalition? (It’s a question I think we’ve all been asking ourselves for the last three weeks).

It’s a generally fair and balanced take – highlighting the many acknowledged threats to the party, recognising there are opportunities, too – with interviewees including Lord (David) Steel, Simon Hughes and James Graham.

However, it’s a little marred by some rather strange omissions by its author, Andy Beckett. For example, it seems odd to talk about the membership’s take on the coalition partnership without referencing either the overwhelming vote in favour of the deal at the party’s special conference on mid-May, or indeed any of the surveys of party members’ views published on Lib Dem Voice showing significant support.

There are also some careless errors.

For example, Beckett writes that “A year ago, Clegg was an underperforming and inexperienced party leader, nicknamed ‘Invisible Clegg’ at Westminster and dogged by the widespread sentiment that the Lib Dems should have picked Vince Cable as leader instead.” In fact a year ago Nick Clegg was being acknowledged as a leader growing in stature – having staked out bold positions on the Gurkhas, Speaker Martin’s resignation and Afghanistan – who was starting to overtake David Cameron in the public popularity polls of leaders.

Beckett backs up his claim that Nick Clegg was initially a disaster for the Lib Dems by claiming “in 2009 the Lib Dems received a quarter less in donations than they did in 2005.” Well, that’s true – but 2005 was an election year, 2009 wasn’t. And of course 2005 was an exceptional year as a result of Michael Brown’s infamous £2.4m donation. In fact, if you look at the party’s fundraising over the last few years you see significant and consistent growth, including during Nick Ckegg’s tenure as leader.

There are also a couple of basic misunderstandings.

For example, Beckett notes that “Ominously too [for the coalition], at last month’s local elections, a series of well-known Lib-Con councils were swept from office by Labour after a few years in power.” Again, true, but council elections held on general election day – when turnout can double compared with normal – are scarcely comparing like with like. That Labour can turn out their (diminishing) core vote on general election day is well known, and is at least in part an explanation for some of the town hall swing-back to Labour.

The final misunderstanding I’d pick out is perhaps a product of the Guardian mindset: the assumption that ‘economic liberals’ are basically Tories.

Beckett notes (correctly) the driving principle behind the Orange Book‘s leading figures – a “mixture of free-market toughness and liberalism on social issues” – but assumes that flatly contradicts an anti-Tory message. You don’t have to sign up to the Orange Book to recognise that in too many areas the Tories advocate rigged markets which benefit their special interests (eg, inheritance tax cuts for millionaires, or differentials between capital gains and income tax); while social liberalism is a preserve of a small elite of metropolitan Tories identified with Cameron, rather than the general view of the Tory party in the country at large.

And Beckett appears somewhat baffled by Thirsk and Malton by-election candidate Howard Keal’s backing for the coalition deal highlighting one of the party’s early successes:

The afternoon before polling day, the Lib Dem candidate, a personable district councillor called Howard Keal, told me, “It’s marvellous to be [campaigning] on the doorstep and to be able to point to achievements in government.” But then he rather spoiled this impression of coalition harmony by giving as his example: “We’ve booted [the Conservative] inheritance tax cuts for the wealthy into the long grass!”

But for many Lib Dems that’s a very neat summary of the kind of achievement the party’s been able to bring to government, and which would have been difficult to achieve in opposition.

Anyway, the article is well worth a read. James Graham has blogged his take and further clarification here.