Fraser Nelson’s must-read guide to utterly and completely misunderstanding the Lib Dems’ Coalition strategy

by Stephen Tall on February 7, 2014

Fraser Nelson has written a must-read guide to utterly and completely misunderstanding the Lib Dems’ Coalition strategy today. My guess is he’s reliant on Tory intelligence, which in this case is an oxymoron.

Much of it is the usual half-fair/half-unfair admixture of insults regularly thrown at the Lib Dems by the right-wing media. We are, says Fraser, “a hodge-podge of a party defined by its lack of definition”, “conservative in Somerset and socialist in Solihull” (has he met Lorely Burt?). Unlike the Conservatives, of course, where the small-l-liberal outlook of Ken Clarke and Nick Boles dovetails perfectly with the right-wing nuttiness of Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone. All major political parties are inevitably broad churches, and this is no more and and no less true of the Lib Dems. You’ll usually find me on the economic liberal wing of the Lib Dems, while my co-editor Caron Lindsay is more comfortable on the social liberal wing. But I’d much rather disagree with Tim Farron on economic policy (as Caron might with David Laws).

Fraser Nelson’s piece is prompted by three mini-rows within the Coalition this week.

In the first, between Michael Gove and David Laws over education policy, my sympathies are entirely with the Lib Dem schools minister in wanting to avoid Ofsted becoming politicised and in wanting academy groups to be as accountable as local authorities. In the second, Danny Alexander’s “over my dead body” blocking of a cut in the 45p top-rate of tax, Fraser is right that the language was hyperbolic – as I noted here. And in the third, the Lib Dems blocking the Tories from more draconian capping of Council Tax rises, Fraser ignores the fact that Eric Pickles was (rightly) thwarted by a coalition of Lib Dem ministers and Tory council leaders who reckon local government is already too centralised.

I cannot see the pattern here that Fraser feigns to see to make his central point – that the Lib Dems are basically just a bunch of lefties. And it’s here he exposes his utter and complete misunderstanding the Lib Dems’ Coalition strategy, as overseen by Nick Clegg’s top advisor Ryan Coetzee. Here’s how Fraser caricatures it:

[Coetzee’s] research shows that Clegg’s best chance lies in wooing the people he had given up on: the Left-wingers, who are now called the “switch-backers”. They dislike Conservatives in general, and Michael Gove in particular – so, runs his logic, Clegg’s best chance of holding on to his 55 MPs is to attack his partners.

He is wrong. Here’s how I’ve described Ryan Coetzee’s assessment, based on the party’s first ever extensive private polling:

The party has a fairly solid base of 10% of the electorate. A further 15% would consider voting for us, pretty evenly split between those who are currently Conservative or Labour voters, or who are undecided. If we can persuade half of those considerers to vote Lib Dem in 2015, the party will likely hold the balance of power once again. Call it our 17.5% strategy, if you like (the optimistic end of the party’s share-of-the-vote forecast for 2015).

To repeat: the Lib Dems message is intended to appeal to persuadable Conservatives just as much as it’s intended to appeal to persuadable Labour supporters just as much as it’s intended to appeal to persuadable voters who are currently undecided – ie, the 15% of centrist, small-l-liberal voters who are generally pro-European and pro-renewables and, yes, who aren’t such fans of Michael Gove, fearing he’s putting ideology ahead of what’s best for schools.

In fact, they’re exactly the same audience a mainstream Conservative party which genuinely wanted to win a majority in 2015 would also be trying to target. It says a lot about the state of the modern Tories that folk like Fraser are happy to ignore those moderate voters in the progressive centre, and casually dismiss them as ‘left-wingers’.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.


a) You refer to Ken Clarke and Philip Hollobone being Tories in the same party. Both are conservatives. Different shades of conservative, but still both conservatives. Whereas Simon Hughes and Sarah Teather are a world apart from David Laws. Might as well be on different planets as different parties.

b) Your whole defence of the Lib Dems in government simply consists of a defence of a party being a dog in a manger – “We’ve been such a force in government! Look what we’ve stopped the Tories doing!” Maybe at Lib Dem conferences simply everyone agrees this is the definition of success, and maybe in 5 years time a Lib Dem minister can stand up at the 2019 Spring Assembly and say “I’ve been such a success in my department! Look at this socialist Balls-inspired nonsense I’ve stopped my Labour minister doing! On top of all the things I stopped the Tories doing 5 years ago!”

But the truth is, for all the Lib Dems’ claims of radicalism, it’s only Gove and Duncan-Smith who’ve had any real ideas in this Parliament – and ideas frighten the horses – and the Lib Dems don’t like the idea of that, hence trying to scupper them, shout them down, call them ‘ideological’, whatever.

And as for “the 15% of centrist, small-l-liberal voters who are generally pro-European and pro-renewables” – there’s no such thing. The 15% of voters who are pro-European and pro-renewables are off the scale loonies who can afford not to give a stuff about their gas bill. The Torygraph (for it is they!) have a fair assessment here:

by WHS on February 7, 2014 at 8:36 pm. Reply #

Lord Ashcroft suggested the LD’s core vote was 5% of the electorate.

by Dave B on February 8, 2014 at 9:52 am. Reply #

Good article, Stephen. Of course as the Tories pursue the votes of the UKIPers, Nelson wants to portray the centre ground as lefties, but Reagun, Clinton, Blair all taught that you don’t win elections from the fringe.

As for WHS saying only Gove and IDS have had any ideas… Chris Huhne set up the Wourld’s first Green Investment Bank, Lyne Featherstone brought in equal marriage, Vince Cable put apprenticeships back up the agenda, Nick Clegg introduced the pupil premium, and now early years dinners, doing more for education than Gove can even conceive.

These are things that will be remembered

by Richard on February 8, 2014 at 10:08 am. Reply #

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