Leading article: 'What have we got to show for it?'

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There is a case to be made for the Liberal Democrats in government. This weekend, Nick Clegg is trying to make it. The party has produced a pledge-card-style reminder of what it has secured from taking part in the coalition.

The remarkably fluent and loyal Lord Ashdown, interviewed on pages 28 and 29, sums it up thus: "... 800,000 people taken out of paying tax, the Pupil Premium, the protection of the schools budget, the reversal of some of the appalling intrusions into our civil liberties and human rights, the fact we all have a choice about the future electoral system".

The trouble is that none of these is a clear-cut Liberal Democrat gain, and the whole package is heavily offset by the price Mr Clegg and his colleagues paid to join the coalition. Raising the income tax threshold is not, in fact, the most effective way of making the tax system more progressive. It benefits the higher paid more than the lower, unless – as has happened – higher tax rates are raised and thresholds lowered. Which means that more people are subjected to higher rates, with their negative effect on work incentives. Nor is it obvious that the overall tax structure would have been less progressive had the Conservatives governed alone.

The same goes for the schools budget and civil liberties, on which the conversion of the Conservative leadership to the causes of social justice and liberalism appears to be genuine. That leaves the referendum on changing the voting system. As our ComRes opinion poll suggests today, the campaign to give more power to the voters – the guarantee of the chance to express an effective preference – is not going well. Misinformation from the No campaign about the alternative vote system seems to be persuading people that "no change" is the safer option. Unfortunately, the purveyors of confusion include Lord Owen, who writes on page 21 to urge a No vote, mainly because, he says, the change would make it harder to bring in a proportional system later. That is a a debatable assertion: it is impossible to predict what might happen many years hence.

People should vote for or against the reform proposed on 5 May, which this newspaper believes is a small but significant improvement on the existing system, and not try to calculate the chances of other possible reforms in the distant future, whatever their merits.

One of the reasons why sentiment is moving against change may be that the No campaign has succeeded in turning the referendum into a vote of confidence in Mr Clegg. The Liberal Democrat leader is, therefore, paying twice for the breach of his party's election promise to abolish student fees, which has earned him the title of the most unpopular mainstream politician in Britain. Mr Clegg ruefully admits that he and Vince Cable should have called their policy a "time-limited graduate tax", but it is too late now.

The other price the Lib Dems paid was in their U-turn over the speed and depth of public spending cuts. This puts them in a lose-lose game: if the economy bounces back, the Lib Dems will not take the credit; and if it does not, the Lib Dems will share the blame.

In personnel, the Lib Dem contribution to the Government has been limited. Chris Huhne has done a good job at Energy and Climate Change, strengthening his claim to the succession should Mr Clegg fall. But Mr Cable's reputation as the sage of Cowley Street has not been sustained in the Business department.

One of the few unambiguously positive contributions to the coalition was made by the Lib Dem spring conference yesterday, when it voted against the reorganisation of the health service being driven through by Andrew Lansley, the Conservative Health Secretary. This should make Mr Lansley think again about the accountability of GP consortia in the brave (in the Yes, Minister sense) new NHS world.

One surprising feature of the Liberal Democrats' position is that they have not benefited from David Cameron's apparent lack of focus and his failure to show that he is the master of events. It might be expected that the Conservative Party's stumble would be the Liberal Democrats' opportunity. Instead, as the coalition hits a rough patch, it is the weaker partner that is suffering disproportionately.

The mood of the grassroots party assembled in Sheffield this weekend is remarkably robust, considering that they face tough local elections in seven weeks' time. But the refrain "What have we got to show for it?" will grow only more insistent, especially if the referendum on voting reform is lost.

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