I was surprised to read The Independent's front page headline on Wednesday: Lib Dem support hits all time low. I was surprised for two reasons: firstly, that a quality paper such as The Independent should resort to this level of journalism; secondly, that coming from a newspaper that openly supported the Liberal Democrats at the General Election, it was a rather unusual move.
I have to admit, having read the article, I have become a little more cynical about The Independent's motivations in publishing it. What was even more surprising about the piece was how badly it was both written and researched. Its writer clearly had no concept of either the volatility of opinion polls or even the most superficial appreciation of Liberal Democrats' history (in particular the early Ashdown era).
It was error strewn rubbish. Factually, it was so erroneous as to be laughable and this, combined with its simplistic and predictable analysis, wouldn't have earned its writer a 2:2 at undergraduate level. Still, it sells papers...
For a start, it claims that Lib Dem support (at 11%) is lower than it has ever been since the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP in 1988. No, it isn't. Lib Dem (or SLD as we were then) support was into single figures for long stretches in 1988 and 1989 and it took the new leader, Paddy Ashdown, some time to establish the new party's credibility. These were the early days of the new party during which survival was no certainty, struggling as we were to fight off the challenge from David Owen's continuing SDP and, to a lesser degree, that of Michael Meadowcroft's continuing Liberal Party. And yet - in spite of the party being seen invariably as either a joke or an irrelevance, by 1991 we were winning by-elections in the most safe of Tory safe seats and in 1992 put in a credible performance in the General Election. And we all know what happened in the years thereafter.
Even in December You Gov had the Lib Dems on 8%-9% for most of the month in the aftermath of the tuition fees vote, which makes you wonder about the timing of the sensationalist headline given that we're three points up from where we were at the beginning of last month!
The Independent also makes the (unforgivable) error of comparing Clegg's position to that of David Owen: "Nick Clegg is now the most unpopular third party leader since David Owen led the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1989." This is mistaken on two levels. Firstly, David Owen was not the leader of an established third party in 1989, but a breakaway wing of the SDP determined to remain independent while drifting towards political oblivion. Secondly, it is plainly fraudulent to contrast the travails of a third party leader in the admittedly difficult position of governing in coalition with the position of an egomaniac with self-destructive tendencies.
The article also fails to take into account the variance between the numerous opinion polls, such is its rush to predict the party will be reduced to a mere 15 MPs after the next General Election. The Sun today drew attention to a You Gov poll it had commissioned, which has the Lib Dems on a mere 7% (down from 10% yesterday). However, a Topline poll has us on 12%.
What does this mean? Very little, given the margin for error in opinion polls. Clearly, the polls don't look good for either the Liberal Democrats or the coalition government, but they hardly merit this kind of sensationalist treatment from The Independent.