The morning after the Lib Dem nightmare before…. My first thoughts.

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2015

Lib Dems winning hereI wrote this for The Times’s Red Box blog this morning. It was published under the heading ‘Lib Dems died the moment they joined the coalition’ – not quite what I wrote, but not so far off the mark…

Numbed disbelief. That’s how Lib Dems have been feeling ever since 10pm when the official exit poll first revealed how bad a night it was going to be for my party. 10 seats? That couldn’t be right, we thought. And it turns out it wasn’t. We did worse: 8 MPs. Not even the most pessimistic, Coalition-hating, Clegg-allergic, Orange Book-phobic Lib Dem thought it could ever get that bad. But it has.

The rout of all but one of our Scottish MPs by the SNP wasn’t entirely unexpected. Nor was the loss of our urban English seats where Labour were the challengers. What is quite stunning – utterly, compellingly, breathtakingly unpredicted – is the scale of our defeat at the hands of our Conservative coalition partners. Across the south and south-west of England and suburban London, they have wiped us off the map. None of us foresaw that, and that makes it far, far worse.

In one top Lib Dem target, where the party ended up finishing third, I was told “Our canvassing goes back years. I thought it was robust. I still do. There were absolutely no signs of this, not even on the ground today.”

Thinking I detected some kind of 1992-style Tory bounce-back a couple of days ago, I got in touch with a senior Lib Dem to ask, “Should we be worried that Cameron’s schedule is targeting so many LibDem-held seats? Do they actually sniff 300+ seats?” No, I was told, they were “wasting their time in Twickenham and Yeovil”. Tell that today to Vince Cable and David Laws.

The Tory advance also makes the Lib Dem post mortem more complicated. We didn’t just lose votes to Labour (that had been priced in) we lost at least as many votes to the Conservatives. For those dissident Lib Dems reaching for the easy answer that’s long been trailed – the party needs to return to its radical, centre-left roots and the progressive voters will surely return – that should be a warning. Labour has just found out to its cost that burrowing yourself further into your comfort zone doesn’t help.

So what does explain the calamitous result? Sure, policy blunders like the tuition fees U-turn played their part, sapping both Lib Dem support and morale. But the real truth is, I think, simpler. We were dead the moment we joined the Coalition. Too Tory for our progressive voters, not Tory enough for our small-c conservative voters – and the voters who remained, the pragmatic, liberal centrists, just aren’t enough to win us many seats.

Maybe it would be different under PR (our 8% of the vote would yield us around 50 MPs) but first-past-the-post is what the voters chose in 2011. And for as long as we have it, a third party looking to be the moderating force will get flattened in the inevitable pincer movement. Incumbency isn’t, it turns out, a magic wand.

When the Coalition was formed in 2010, many of its supporters, including me, pointed out the alternative scenario: the Conservatives calling a second general election later that year on the back of an emergency austerity budget and some populist policies, and winning a convincing mandate with the Lib Dems squeezed out of the picture. That’s indeed what has happened. I guess at least we got five years’ governing under our belts in the interim. That seems like scant consolation this morning.

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3 comments

Stephen
As a leftish radical LibDem it gives me no satisfaction to be able to state that I saw coalition with the Tories in 2010 as a disastrous move that scarcely bore contemplating. The Tories are, and have always been, completely ‘toxic’ in relation to Liberal Democrat interests. Notwithstanding the economic situation of the country, as set out by Nick Clegg, that did not warrant jumping into bed with Cameron; we should have offered confidence and supply at the outset, and no more. If that had ‘morphed’ in some way at a later stage into full coalition is ‘for the birds’. We now see our party a shade of what it was under Paddy Ashdown: it will take a generation to recover from this train wreck, and, sadly, I’m too advanced in years to ever hope of witnessing its recovery in my lifetime. A sad day.

by Geoffrey Powers on May 8, 2015 at 5:16 pm. Reply #

“We were dead the moment we joined the Coalition.”

This. This is exactly what I thought five years ago.

I still voted to join the hated Tories in the end – we had no plausible alternative. We’d have been crucified for propping up Gordon Brown, had that even been possible. The financial maelstrom was deafening – we were certainly no Greece, but markets could have played havoc with UK debt without stability. Lib Dem policies were to be implemented by the hatful in the proposed Coalition. We would be wiped out in 2015, but at least we’d have no income tax up to £10k, ID cards scrapped, fixed term parliaments, the pupil premium, etc. and we’d try and prevent the Tories from destroying everything.

However, in the interim years I had somehow been persuaded that it wouldn’t be as bad as I expected. I never bought the line that there would be some sort of dividend from the electorate realising we really were capable of governing. But there seemed a sense that some people understood what we were trying to do, however grudgingly. The polls weren’t a total disaster. It just didn’t seem as though 2015 would be a cataclysmic destruction of the party, as I’d expected.

That turned out to be an illusion last night, and a horribly painful one.

I’m not sorry though. I’d do it again. Lib Dem policies were implemented. And we were thrashed, as originally forecast. Well done everyone then for having the nerve, and commiserations now on reaping the inevitable whirlwind.

by AB on May 8, 2015 at 9:13 pm. Reply #

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