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

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.

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19 Comments

  • Joe Donnelly 2nd Jun '10 - 3:30pm

    It’s a common problem among journalists of mistaking pro-market and pro-business theres a key difference and the Tories are at their worst when they focus on the latter.

  • Its windy and over-long and riddled with inaccurate assumptions that expose the author’s left leaning biases.

    For example, the suggestion that smaller parties are at greater risk of collapsing (where is the evidence for that – the Liberal Party, the SNP, Plaid, the Greens all seem to have got along quite nicely for decades; or maybe he means outside the UK where the German FDP, for example, seemed to do quite nicely out of being almost permanent government partners despite getting 10-15% of the vote.

    And the assertion that the Lib Dems are prone living on a roller-coaster in terms of popular support. Has he not noticed that in every election the party has fought its vote has been between 19 and 23%? Some rollercoaster!

    Disappointed Guardian readers will take some comfort from it but as a piece of robust analysis it just doesnt stand up.

  • David from Ealing 2nd Jun '10 - 3:40pm

    Interesting that the articles title is a question, but on this occasion they don’t ask for comments.

  • Andrew Suffield 2nd Jun '10 - 3:53pm

    Op-ed articles about what will happen in politics several years in the future are, without exception, worthless page-filling garbage.

  • paul barker 2nd Jun '10 - 4:47pm

    Seemed more of a dogs breakfast to me. It should have ended- “will this do ?”

  • Paul McKeown 2nd Jun '10 - 6:55pm

    “Curate’s egg” is a good description, nevertheless, it was interesting to see a genuine attempt to analyse Liberal Democracy in the mainstream media. I guess the editors insisted on the bad parts of the curate’s egg to maintain the fuddish media attack on the sustainability of the coalition and to cow Liberal Democrat representatives, members and supporters.

  • intellectually poor!

  • I’m a lib dem voter but not a lib dem member. Many of the criticisms on this page strike me as somewhat complacent and very insiderish. For example, criticisng the article for talking about the publics views but not the parties views. It is me you have to convince, not members. Fail to convince the members and the party self-destructs. fail to convince the voters and it just loses seats. I would say Beckett is presuming the party will hang together.

    I just said, Im a lib dem voter, but three months ago i was thinking, ‘so who is clegg’? Now what was that about underperforming leaders? Simon Hughes now, didnt he fillibuster out attempts to exempt MPs expenses from freedom of information? (got a cheer from me for that!), heard of him. Laws? who the hell is he? My respect for both these coalitionists has gone up considerably, pretty much in exponential form to date. But that kind of justifies the claim of early underperforming. YouGov said that at the start of the campaign 50% of the british public wanted a lib government, but would be voting con 40% lab 30% lib 25% or thereabouts. So whats happening to this 50%?

    Labour had a bananaskin ridden campaign. Their success was patchy, depending on local issues, not least expenses but also whether a particular MP or council had done well or badly for the constituency, at least as much as the national campaign. The conservatives dismissed the libs from the start, and then had to backpeddle to get traction against them. The libs were unprepared for their campaign to succeed, and had difficulties when people actually started to pay attention. Returning to Laws, I cant help thinking his current difficulties must have something to do with suddenly being the centre of attention of a pack of journalists. Obviously, a shortage of cash never helps, but if you cant throw money at it, then you have to be cleverer than the other side.

    Maybe youre right here to gripe about Beckett misinterpreting liberal policies, but do you think the man on the street will be better informed? Its simple. The libs used to be socialists, now theyre tories. That is the message you have to deflect. And you cant do it by saying. ‘No, we’re still socialists, just like Labour’.

    You are right to say that the liberals strong card is the influence it has in deflecting tory policies. But Beckett is right to pinpoint the difficulty of exercising influence from within yet appearing distinct from without. I dont think beckett is baffled, he simply notes there exists a contradiction in delighting in the defeat of the coalition partner you are simultaneously supporting. If the liberals fail to differ publicly from the tories, they will die at the next election. Yet the coalition must also be a success.

    Part of liberal appeal is smoke and mirrors that they differ from the other two parties. In recent times they have been identified with the left, but coming from a tory background I see a thread of traditional tory ‘rich man in his castle’ rights, which nonetheless trickle down to those who do not have castles and which labour has trampled in the name of defeating terrorists. The apparent ease reported in coalition talks with the conservatives reflects the reality that all parties agree on many points given the current economic conditions. The differences between parties are hyped up for purposes of election, and especially so for a party which is ‘neither of the above’. You cant go around in one constituency saying vote lib, get con out’ and in the next say ‘vote lib, get lab out’. You will have to stand FOR something distinct. You may end up with either as partner.

    I was not surprised by the coalition, but pleased. I have always voted ‘neither of the above’. But it does not mean standing aloof and refusing to take part when opportunity presents. What kind of a political party is that? Now, that little matter of the collapse of world finance, is it on or off? If its off, who cares, but if its on, could you really sit there in parliament and watch the conservatives fiddle while Rome burns? I’m sure it would have been an easier ride so far…

    So who thinks Cameron would rather have 60 lib dems in his government than 60 extra tories?

    Will you push to abolish MPs personal expenses before they claim yet more scalps? (they will, you bet they will) Expenses are a disaster waiting to happen whatever rules you make. And they are a fraud against the public making out MPs earn less than they do. Does no one understand this? Getting more in expenses than many people earn is insane. Are you going native now you have power? Its great fun watching the agonies of MPS who have pontificated on their own virtues shown to be no better than the rest of us, but honestly, what is happening to Laws and has happened to others is helping nothing. They’re nibbling at Alexander, but whose next in line? It doesnt matter if you follow the rules, there will still be criticism. And the rules are insane. Laws cannot claim money against his living space if its his boyfriend who owns it, but he can rent a flat quite legitimately which is presumably empty a lot of the time because he’s somewhere else? How many others are doing that? Laws is being cast as villain because he failed to arrange his claims according to the rules. I just found a telegraph article criticising his election material (which said his expenses claims were less than most) because his claims were invalid. Why invalid? the money was paid for space used by him, at less than averags cost to the taxpayer. The larger justice and common sense has been lost in the ongoing attempt to ‘fix up’ the expenses system so MPs can remain on the fiddle while (mostly) staying within new rules. But this also just says, do not go the route of ‘whiter than white’. Youre not. It will backfire. Especially if you go native and go along with. Yougov, 72% said Laws was right to resign. 73% said he should have been able to keep his love life private. The first would not have been an issue if the second had been properly attended to.

  • David Morton 3rd Jun '10 - 7:25am

    I read the dead tree version of this. An odd article in that it was too nuanced and had too much original research to be a classic hatchet job but nevertheless came to some odd conclusions.

    Two thoughts.

    1. If you are the Guardian then your commercial and editorial interests are best served by giving the coalition a damning with faint praise honeymoon period before putting the boot in in 6 months time and keeping kicking till the end. The Scott Trust took a calculated risk in endorsing the party for the GE and must be feeling bruised at getting a Tory led government out of it. In terms of managing decline of dead tree sales acting as a rallying point against public sector cuts is as a good a way as any for its readership base. Setting up a ” we said this would go tits up from the start” back catalouge will help with this.

    2. Stephen fairly mentions the level of support expressed by the formal decision making process about the coalition. However to outsiders I suspect the North Korean results in all three sections of the Triple Lock were the first amber light flashing. The first sign of a WTF are they doing? moment.

    Given the complexities, shades of grey and challenges that a basically small left of centre party will have sustaining its self in a 5 year, Tory dominated coalition making collosal public sector cuts te unanimity and enthusiasm shown at the time can look odd. It all smacked of ” Now they are ringing their Bells, but soon they’ll be wringing their hands” etc etc.

    Interesting Times.

  • An error I spotted was that Beckett dated the pre-eminence of “social liberalism” in the party to the 1970s, and the implication, if not the explicit statement was that the SDP brought a strengthening to that. In fact, the Liberal Party I knew (and joined) – Grimond’s Liberals was always a “social liberal” party with emphasis on public services / public ownership to balance capitalism. There had not been 19th Century style economic liberalism in the party other than as a minority for many years. Personally, I date the revival of that (like New Labour) from th effects of Thatcherism – Thatcherism lite, if you like, in the late 80s and early 90s, just as the merged party was getting into its stride, if you like. Some have tried to split the party by saying the Liberals were economic liberals, the SDP socail liberals. I have never seen that divide. The divide I see, where there is one, is between those in the South East and others – which, I believe explains the growth of economic liberalism in the party. Let’s not rewrite history totally, however. There have ALWAYS been predominantly pro-business Liberals in the party all over the country! But not adherents of free wheeling capitalism, Thatcher or Blair style!

  • Andrea Gill 3rd Jun '10 - 9:38pm

    @Danny “So who thinks Cameron would rather have 60 lib dems in his government than 60 extra tories?”

    A guardian podcast certainly seemed to imply as much a few weeks ago just after the coalition was formed, and I can see how this worked out better for Cameron than he had expected

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Jun '10 - 11:56am

    Tim13

    Some have tried to split the party by saying the Liberals were economic liberals, the SDP socail liberals.

    As someone who was around at the time of the merger, a member of the Liberal Party who voted against it, I’m alarmed to find this is said so often now. Not only is it not true, if anything it was the other way round. One of the main reasons many Liberal Party members had for being opposed to or suspicious of the merger was that by the time it took place DavidOwen had become something of a fan for the simplistic free-market ideology that was just becoming fashionable then. The “dead parrot” document that almost wrecked the new merged party did so because the SDP half of it had been left to two young SDP members who had also come under the influence of the free-market cult and stuffed their part of it with material which many Liberal were very unhappy about.

    Personally, I date the revival of that (like New Labour) from th effects of Thatcherism – Thatcherism lite, if you like, in the late 80s and early 90s, just as the merged party was getting into its stride, if you like.

    It’s a worldwide thing, not just Thatcher. When I was young, socialism was the fashionable ideology, young trendies tended to adopt it in its most extreme form because that made them look clever, like most fashions it was all about striking a pose which you thought made you look different but actually made you look just the same as all the other poseurs, and showed you were an easily manipulated simple-minded person. Extreme “economic liberalism” is much the same today, the current fashion. Just like socialism was adopted even more fanatically by trendies when its failings in the real world were becoming obvious, so it is with “economic liberalism”. In both cases, they always have the get-out clause when you point out its failings “oh, it wasn’t implemented properly” and use that to advocate even more extreme forms of it.

    Sadly, our party has been a little infected by that, I do often find myself alarmed by how many of our younger recruits seem very much under its influence.


    The divide I see, where there is one, is between those in the South East and others – which, I believe explains the growth of economic liberalism in the party.

    I don’t see it as a north-south thing. There was a time when northern Liberals tended to be a bit more right-wing because the old Tory-Liberal pacts kept going longer up north and contributed something to the party’s survival there. The south was more about the Liberals taking over the role of main opposition to the Tories.

    Certainly, having lived in the south-east all my life, I’ve met plenty of members of the party in the places I’ve lived who are to the left. I’d say the growth of “economic liberalism” in our party is purely a young trendies thing. Also, I have to say, I think Clegg’s association with that side of things is tending to attract that sort.

  • i am a voter and this hybrid lot has lost my vote – I did not vote for a coilition – it should have been left as it is – the tories will kill the lib dems stone dead – it has all happened before at the last coilition

  • Anthony Aloysius St 5th Jun '10 - 5:52pm

    The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that if the coalition lasts for five years, and if at the end of that time the government is extremely unpopular, there will be tremendous pressure on the Lib Dems to agree to an electoral pact with the Tories. That would be the beginning of the end of the Lib Dems as a separate party, but the alternative could be the loss of many seats.

  • Paul McKeown 5th Jun '10 - 6:16pm

    @Anthony Aloysius St

    There will be no pact; there will be no re-run of the Liberal Unionists, the coupon, Simonites or the National Liberals.

    I would simply abstain or vote Green if that is what was offered. I believe in plural politics, clearly defined political choices, rather than absurd coalitions of interest, voting for what one believes in rather than what one is against. I believe that governments should be formed from a majority amongst the electorate, rather than some sectional plurality. I believe in coalition formation after election rather than before.

    Liberal Democracy must stand for these things: if it didn’t then it would have left me.

    If the government was unpopular then the remedy would consist of rebuilding after the inevitable losses. If Cameron and Clegg were worried about this, surely they would best be advised to push through STV, which would mitigate the losses?

    I believe in the current coalition, it has clear majority support and is, in fact, what the electors chose. Part Liberal Democrat, part Tory Reform Group, part slightly drier Conservatism. But a pact before the next election would be a democratic dereliction, denying the elector his choice.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 5th Jun '10 - 7:20pm

    “I believe in the current coalition, it has clear majority support and is, in fact, what the electors chose.”

    Eh? I don’t remember “Lib-Con coalition” being on the ballot paper.

  • Paul McKeown 5th Jun '10 - 7:51pm

    @Anthony Aloysius St

    No, but what are you suggesting, instead? Conservative minority government, backed by 36%? Coalition of losers?
    People really need to get over this. If they don’t accept the coalition, then they shouldn’t bother supporting
    (a) the Liberal Democrats – because they believe in majority governments formed of coalitions
    (b) STV – because coalitions would almost always be the result
    (c) First Past the Post with more than 2 parties – because coalitions will also inevitably happen from time to time

    So, what are you suggesting?
    Permanent blue boot on Winston Smith’s face?
    Permanent workers democracy care of Militant Tendency?
    Anarchy?

    Can you suggest what it is that the electors did choose if it wasn’t this coalition, then, because it is getting tiresome hearing that you’re unhappy with it, without suggesting what it is you think the electors did vote for.

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