Causes and implications of the Liberal Democrats 2015 election result

by The Editor

InsidePolitics FEATURE: This is a fuller and updated version of the article that appeared in the Guardian today, by Ryan Coetzee, who served as election strategist for the Liberal Democrats over the course of the 2015 elections. In it, he sets out the causes and implications of the result of the election for the party.

Causes and implications of the Liberal Democrats 2015 election result
By: Ryan Coetzee

23 May 2015

The moment “316” flashed onto the TV screen in LDHQ I knew it was going to be bad. There was no way the Conservatives could get that close to a majority without taking a significant number of seats off us, and they had – 27 in total. By the end of the night we’d been reduced to just 8 seats across the country.

People shy away from articulating the emotional consequences of a loss so comprehensive, preferring catch-alls like “devastated” and the very British “gutted”. The full range goes something like this: disbelieving, horrified, guilty, embarrassed, angry, vulnerable, resentful. My instinct was to express my sorrow for the candidates and activists who had worked so hard and lost and then lapse into silence, but on reflection I think I can better contribute to the reconstruction of the party by sharing my views, so here they are.

Our campaign was fought on three fronts and we lost on all of them.

In Scotland, a tidal wave of nationalism engulfed us, as it did Labour. The origins of the SNP’s rise have little to do with the Liberal Democrats and pre-date the formation of a coalition government in 2010, but shacking up with the Tories and taking co-responsibility for austerity made life even harder than it would otherwise have been. By the end, when it became clear there was no such thing as a “soft” SNP voter, our campaign in Scotland narrowed its focus to an appeal to Conservative and Labour supporters to vote tactically in Liberal Democrat seats to keep the SNP out. We hoped – and what data we had suggested – we could add Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Ross Skye and Lochaber, East Dunbartonshire and Edinburgh West to the “safe” seat of Orkney and Shetland. We couldn’t. The SNP turned out its supporters in droves and our squeeze on Tory and Labour voters couldn’t compensate for it.

In Labour-facing seats we had an uphill battle from the outset. 2010 Liberal Democrats, many of whom had been on loan from Labour, felt we had betrayed them, first by going into government with the Tories, then by appearing to enjoy their company and finally by breaking our promise on tuition fees. By the end of the campaign we thought we could hold onto Sheffield Hallam, Leeds North West, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Birmingham Yardley and, at a push, Cardiff Central. Only the first two made it across the ling. Nick’s repeated apology on tuition fees and our concerted effort to hammer home our achievements in government, including the things we had blocked the Tories from doing, failed to make up the trust deficit we had accrued.

In Tory-facing seats we got routed by what I call The Fear. We presumed from the beginning that the Conservatives would try to scare voters in our Tory-facing marginals with the prospect of a Miliband government that would risk the economy. But in the event the polls and the SNP conspired to ratchet up The Fear to Terror levels, the former because they showed Labour’s only path to power would be with the support of the SNP while failing to point to a Conservative majority and the latter because the SNP gleefully shouted from the Crag tops that they would prop up a Labour government, whether Labour liked it or not.

About four weeks from election day it became clear that The Fear was hurting us. We tried everything we could to counter it: fear of a Tory minority government in hock to its own right wing, Ukip and the DUP; fear of Tory cuts to welfare, schools and other unprotected departments; ruling out participation in any government that relied on SNP support; offering ourselves in stable coalition as the only guarantors of stability. All of it was trumped by The Fear, and on a scale we didn’t see coming.

Should we have run the campaign differently, given what we knew? I don’t think so. Had the polls shown a clear Conservative lead throughout, we would of course not have framed the choice in the way we did, contrasting ourselves as the party of stable coalition with the Conservatives and Labour as parties offering unstable minority government. But the polls never suggested an impending Tory majority. Even so, we correctly identified the threats facing us on each front and did our best to counter them. Our local activists and the team at LDHQ fought the campaign of their lives, with stamina and discipline. And we made a coherent, liberal case to the voters, offering both a strong economy and a fair society underpinned by a fiscal plan that balanced responsibility with fairness and front page manifesto commitments on things that really matter to voters: tax, health, education and the environment. There are of course improvements that could have been made to the design and execution of the campaign, as there always are, but in retrospect it is difficult to imagine a different campaign producing a significantly better result. Doubtless some will disagree with this assessment. But consider this: our excellent candidate in Montgomeryshire, Jane Dodds, ran a Roll Royce campaign. Lembit Opik, the man who lost us the seat in 2010, was by all accounts the opposite of an excellent candidate and put in very little effort. He polled 9% more than her.

We have to go further back to understand what happened, to the big judgements that were made in in 2010, and consider whether they were the right ones. The first of those was the decision to go into government with the Conservatives. The second was the Rose Garden approach to our first years in coalition, during which we sought to prove coalition could work by avoiding public expressions of disunity. The third was to “differentiate” in the second half of the parliament, precisely through public displays of disunity, in an attempt to re-establish “equidistance”. Underpinning all of this was a decision to position the Liberal Democrats as a party of the liberal centre ground.

I have no doubt that going into coalition in 2010 was the right thing to do for the country, but I can’t help feeling it is the root cause of our current woes. There are those who argue it is not the fact of going into government that undid us, but the way we went about it. Some will say our mistake was the Rose Garden approach, giving liberal and left-leaning supporters the sense of a romance they wanted no part of. A few others, like Jeremy Brown, will argue the opposite: by differentiating we alienated voters who were attracted to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition without winning back the ones pushed away by the decision to enter government in the first place. Then there are those – in Labour, among the commentariat and occasionally inside the Liberal Democrats – who spent five years propagating the idea that we failed to stand up for our values in government, allowing the Conservatives free reign to run the country as they saw fit. There is merit in the first two of these critiques, and they are worth exploring; the last deserves a less charitable response.

There were very good reasons for the Rose Garden: the country and the markets were desperate for stable government, but coalitions were regarded as inherently and dangerously unstable. The conventional wisdom in Westminster was that the coalition simply wouldn’t last and that, in any event, the Liberal Democrats were too flaky to take the tough decisions necessary to extract the country from its economic woes. Nick was determined to confound the doomsayers and he did, as even the most hostile 2010 sceptic must now concede. But there was a price to pay. A party that offered a radical shake-up of the establishment appeared, on the face of it, to have been co-opted by it at the first whiff of power. That sense, untrue and unfair though it was, stuck to Nick and the party for the duration of the parliament, long after the relationship between the coalition partners had evolved into something much more transactional.

From the time of the AV referendum, relations between the coalition partners began to shift. This was in part a consequence of the resentment the Liberal Democrat felt over the manner in which the Conservatives conducted themselves during the campaign and in part the execution of a deliberate plan to “differentiate” once the coalition had established itself and reassured the country.

Just after I arrived in the Deputy Prime Minister’s office in October 2012, David Cameron called a meeting of all Special Advisors at which he exhorted us not to allow the government to become “transactional”. At a breakaway meeting of Liberal Democrat Special Advisors immediately afterwards I forcefully made the point that “transactional” was exactly how the government needed to be perceived. It is always in the interests of the big party to present coalition government as a unitary entity, because it will always be the larger party that is seen to own it. For the smaller partner, the challenge is to land policy wins and, crucially, be seen to own them, otherwise the voters will be sure to conclude the party had betrayed them and its own values. I suggested to Nick that the voters needed to be exposed to the negotiations that went on behind closed doors, lest they concluded, understandably, that all the government’s outcomes were all Conservative ones.

I can’t emphasise enough just how difficult it was to get credit for anything we did in government. Our polling revealed that fewer than 3% of voters in Liberal Democrat seats believed we had delivered “a lot” of our policies in government, while just over a fifth of them credited us with delivering “quite a few”. Fully three quarters felt we had delivered little or nothing. And so differentiation coincided with an effort to get the whole party proudly to claim credit for Liberal Democrat achievements in government. We ran campaigns on tax and jobs, deployed the “record of delivery; promise of more” message, while Nick banged the delivery drum at every possible occasion. With the exception of our policy to push up the income tax threshold, nothing else ever really cut through. In the end, we got blamed for what our supporters didn’t like about the government without ever getting the credit for what they did.

The idea that the Liberal Democrats somehow gave up on their values in government is pernicious nonsense and cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. The argument is sometimes advanced alongside an objection to the positioning of the party in “the liberal centre ground”, a place where, some say, liberalism goes to die.

But what makes centre ground liberals liberal is that we reject both the idea that people should have to fend for themselves without the resources or power to direct their own lives and the idea that people are helpless victims of circumstance who can survive only as dependents of the state. The “centre ground” is not a way of splitting the difference between left and right, between Labour and the Conservatives. Being centre ground is to take a position that is inherently liberal, because it acknowledges both individual agency and the way in which our circumstances constrain our ability to exercise agency. A centre ground liberal promotes both formal and substantive freedom.

Clegg is a liberal to his core. What animates him most is a deep aversion to the idea of demography as destiny; that outcomes should be skewed because of an opportunity deficit at birth. That is why he is so proud of delivering the Pupil Premium, a policy which targeted money at the most disadvantaged school children, and put social mobility at the centre of his agenda in government. Some critics on the left, both internal and external, object to Clegg’s preference of opportunity equality to outcome equality, but that is hardly evidence of illiberalism. Quite the opposite, in fact.

One of the ironies of the response of the public and pundits to the election result was the enthusiastic response to Nick’s defense of liberal values during his resignation speech. He had, of course, made that very speech scores of times before. It wasn’t even a particularly good rendition of it. What made the difference was not the content but the fact that people finally gave him a hearing and, I now suspect, regret not giving him one earlier.

Looking back, each one of us would do some things differently. I would rather we had not had our moment in the Rose Garden, however necessary it felt at the time. Like everyone else, I would prefer to have avoided the tuition fees fiasco. Less commonly, I think we cut the prison and legal aid budgets too much, should in the end have declined to support closed material proceedings and fought harder to stop Chris Grayling’s destructive tenure at the Ministry of Justice. But I do think it involves a considerable degree of wishful thinking to imagine we could have done government differently and convinced supporters deeply averse to our coalition partners, or those who preferred them in uncertain times. Voters make big judgements, not little ones. Red-Yellow switchers made the judgement that we had sold them out simply by going into coalition with the Conservatives. Blue-Yellow switchers made the judgement that a Conservative majority was the best way to secure their economic interests in the face of a Labour government propped up by the SNP.

My tentative conclusion, then, which is offered as a spur to debate in the hope I can be convinced otherwise, is that it is probably not possible to succeed electorally in coalition government under a First Past the Post system while remaining equidistant from the two big parties. If we can’t win the fight for a proportional representation system, it may be that we have either to stay in opposition or pick a side. There can be little doubt we would have fared better in this election had we stayed in opposition or, conversely, gone into government and then ruled out any future coalition with Labour, the extreme expression of which approach would have been to fight a “coupon election”, guaranteeing victory in all our Conservative-facing seats while sacrificing the rest. But had we stayed in opposition we would have failed the country and had we abandoned equidistance we would have split the party and compromised its liberal purpose. The thing about big strategic choices is that they are always made in the shadow of the question, “compared to what”?

There is some comfort in the idea that our defeat last week allows us to return to an idyllic past where we can be ourselves, unencumbered by the ball-and-chain of compromise with a hated enemy. I feel it keenly myself. But the truth is there is no idyllic past, unless one is prepared to go back to the early part of the last century. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the 2005 election which, in its own way, was just as telling as this one. Then, facing an unpopular Labour government that won just 35% of the vote and an unpopular Tory opposition that mustered just 32%, we tested to destruction the idea than the Liberal Democrats could succeed as a populist party of radical liberal insurgents. In the event we got just 63 seats – and the difference between 63 and 8 is less than it seems when you consider neither result enabled us to implement a single policy in government.

It seems to me there are three options for the party now: (1) remain in opposition unless we can effect a change to the electoral system, even if a coalition opportunity presents itself again; (2) adopt a Jenkins-ite view of the world and seek once more to reunite the left by merging or aligning with Labour, thereby creating a path to power for liberal ideas or (3) rebuild, take the next best chance to be in government and work for a different outcome.

None of these paths is without its price and it would be a mistake to assume our recent defeat and the consequent need to rebuild in opposition absolves us from having to choose between them in the near future. The Conservatives have a tiny majority and Labour is a hundred seats short of one. A hung parliament is a perfectly conceivable outcome in 2020 and if it comes to pass, the Liberal Democrats might once again be faced with a big decision.

I will never be found for giving up on power, however difficult it might be for us. The idea is self-indulgent and selfish – it makes life easier for politicians and harder for the people whose cause we claim to represent. Liberals must win power if we are to dispose of it in a liberal fashion – by giving it away to the men and women of Britain. We fail them, not ourselves, when we fail to win.

Seeking a reunification of the left is superficially attractive but, I fear, practically impossible, for two reasons: first, because Labour itself seems terminally divided between left and centre, and second, because those in Labour’s centre seem to lack any passion for individual freedom. I was struck by Tony Blair’s description of the centre ground in a recent article in this paper. He said centre ground politics involves “ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care.” He said we must “fashion a role for government that is strategic and empowering of individuals.” He said we should be open to ideas from outside our political tribes.” Now, I agree with all of that, but what stayed with me was what he did not say: that centre ground politics should involve the promotion of individual rights and freedoms – and that is the difference between the centre ground and the liberal centre ground. So I am not sure a reunification of the left could actually achieve liberal aims, however appealing the idea of constructing an anti-Tory majority may be.

Which leaves us with a challenge: we have to find a way to succeed electorally from inside coalition government, despite the structural weakness of our position. To make it easier, we should immediately join forces with everyone who wants a fairer, more democratic electoral system. I find the lack of outrage in the wake of this election about the distribution of seats in the House of Commons puzzling. I understand that people in Britain may be used to it, but what is the point of complaining about the disconnect between electors and elected if the system itself disenfranchises millions?

If we do go into coalition government again, whether or not the electoral system changes, we would need to try doing it differently, in three ways: first, we should adopt a transactional approach from day one in an effort to communicate that we are in fact fighting for our values; second, we should be ruthless about protecting the interests of our core supporters, including students and public sector workers; and third, we really, really need to be luckier – whatever one’s analysis about the Liberal Democrats in government, the rise of Scottish nationalism and the fearful response to it south of the border is something the party neither caused nor could do very much about.

The immediate future for the Liberal Democrats will be tough. We will not shy away from a full and frank debate about what went wrong and what we can now do to fix it. The review set up by the party’s Federal Executive under James Gurling’s able leadership is the right way to go about it. But since all strategy starts with an objective, we must not discuss the rebuilding of the party without asking ourselves, “to what end?”, however distant the prospect of a return to power seems right now.