Lib Dem meltdown: things I got right, things I got wrong & some thoughts about where next

by Stephen Tall on May 11, 2015

lib-dems-defeat-election

It could have been worse

First, three ways in which the Lib Dems were actually quite lucky (yes, you read that right) on Thursday:

1. We were fewer than 25,000 votes away from being wiped out
24,968: that’s the combined majorities of the 8 rump Lib Dem MPs. Scary, yes?

2. Caroline Lucas wasn’t leader of the Greens
A plausible, likeable, articulate Green party leader would have inflicted much greater damage on the Lib Dems, maybe even pushing the party into fifth place in the popular vote.

3. After boundary reforms, our notional number of seats is just 4
The Tories will soon move to overhaul constituency boundaries (actually a long-overdue reform the Lib Dems blocked in 2012 after the Tories kaiboshed House of Lords reform)) and, as Anthony Wells has estimated, that may well reduce the number of Lib Dem MPs to just four.

Things I got wrong

1. My prediction
I got bits right. I was confident the Tories would come first in both seats and vote-share, though like almost everyone else I thought they’d fall short of a majority. But I was way out in my optimism the Lib Dems would retain 32 MPs. In fairness, I was in good company (Peter Kellner’s prediction was 31), and not even the Tories thought they’d do as well as they did. But, still, I got it wrong, badly.

As for my pledge to “run naked down Whitehall” if we were reduced to 24 seats — well, I stand willing to honour that if someone can sort out the logistics of me avoiding a public order offence.

2. “5 reasons why the Lib Dems won’t suffer an FDP wipeout”
Here’s a post I wrote in 2013 which has not aged well: 5 reasons not to assume the FDP wipeout in the German elections will happen here in the UK. True, we weren’t quite wiped out. But I argued “the Lib Dems are very unlikely to lose two-thirds of our vote”, and also dismissed the likelihood of the party losing votes to the Conservatives. It pains me to say it, but the gloomy warnings of Southport MP John Pugh and, yes, Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott proved to be far more accurate.

3. Coalition could be the making of the Lib Dems
That’s what I thought and, in some ways, this has happened. The party moved from being a think-tank with bright ideas to having to work through the hard grind of implementing policies in government. But I also thought being in government could boost the party’s popularity: that the ‘wasted vote’ argument would melt away, that perceptions of our competence would rise. Instead, we were subject to five years’ ridicule by the media and Labour and the Tories which destroyed our reputation, and we then faced a very traditional third party squeeze with disastrous electoral consequences.

Things I got right

1. Tuition fees
I’ve long supported tuition fees — the only fair, sustainable way of expanding good quality higher education — and my opposition to the party’s policy was one big reason I didn’t try and stand for parliament under the Lib Dem banner. As I wrote in 2011:

… to me, the NUS pledge was symptomatic of the party’s occasionally opportunistic oppositional mindset — we never expected to have power, and so we didn’t behave as if we ever would.

True, our manifesto was fully-costed, in the limited sense that we had allowed enough tax rises to offset the abolition of tuition fees over six years. But we had identified only 25% of the public spending cuts needed to cut the deficit; better than any other party, yet still nowhere near enough to balance the nation’s budget. Weighed against that priority, eradicating tuition fees was always an unaffordable luxury — and we knew that well enough before the election.

Well, now we’re paying the price of not really expecting we’d find ourselves in power. Perhaps the events of the past two months will be largely forgotten in five years’ time… If they’re not forgotten, well, we’ve only ourselves to blame for putting party priorities ahead of the public’s priorities. That’s what happens when parties bend to their activists and stop listening to the public.

2. Nick Clegg should have quit in 2014
A year ago, in the original almost-wipeout election of the Euros, I called on Nick Clegg to quit. I thought it would be better for him, better for the party:

I have enormous respect for Nick and like him personally. I am sure he’s entirely honourable in wanting to stay on as leader to contest the 2015 general election. If, as seems likely, he chooses to stay I will support him and the party.

However, I think he’s going to find it tough to turn things round. The media, mostly unfairly, has given him a pounding over the past four years. The relentless hostility has taken its toll on his reputation with the public. I seriously doubt that damage can be restored in the next 11 months.

Would it have made much difference? Hard to say — but it surely had to be worth a go. As I said then, it was our last roll of the dice.

3. The liberal centre
As I wrote in February:

… our slogan, ‘Stronger economy, fairer society: opportunity for everyone’, is a winning one. Or, at least, it would be if it were used by one of the two parties which has a hope of winning this election outright.

Economic competence and social justice is what the voters want. If the Coalition had been on the ballot paper last Thursday, its victory would have been far more convincing than was David Cameron’s. Part of the reason we lost — only part, I accept, but an important part — is that voters were worried the Lib Dems would jettison the Lib/Con Coalition and instead put Ed Miliband in Downing Street, propped up by Alex Salmond and the SNP.

There will be a real temptation for the Lib Dems to repudiate the whole of the last five years after last Thursday’s trauma. I think that would be a mistake, and a mis-reading of an election in which we lost at least as many previous Lib Dem votes to the Conservatives as we did to Labour.

It may well be my party now makes the mistake that Labour made in 2010 in thinking they just weren’t Labour enough. “If only we’d been more Lib Dem!” will go up the cry, and, with relief, our activists will withdraw to the comfort zone of Lib Demmery (civil liberties, constitutional reform, higher spending on public services, and endless debates about Trident). And then in five years’ time, we’ll wonder why the voters didn’t follow us to where we wanted them to go.

Rule 101 of electoral politics: you start with where the voters are. As Tony Blair said yesterday:

the centre is not where you split the difference between progressive and conservative politics. It is where progressive politics gets the breadth of territory to allow it to own the future.

Where should we go next?

1) We need to unite
There will be a temptation for civil war. Those who disliked the Coalition, those who disliked Nick Clegg, and who have felt thwarted and frustrated for five years will be keen to shout “We told you so”. Fair enough, though as I’ve already written I think the damage was done the moment we as a party overwhelmingly signed up to the Coalition; once that act was committed in 2010, I’m not sure there was any way in which last Thursday would have ended less messily. But the blunt truth is the party is too small now to bisect itself even further. Social liberals and economic liberals need to unite and recognise that what we agree on matters far more than what we disagree on.

2) We need to build on our brand
Our brand is weak but not entirely trashed. Lib Dems are seen as promoting fairness, pro-European and internationalist, comfortable with immigration, believers in education. We are also seen as moderate, reasonable, grown-up — I’m sure a lot of the reason for our membership surge since Friday (7,000+ and counting) is voters wanting to reward us for having done the right thing over the past five years and getting shafted for our troubles.

3) We need to campaign smartly
An immediate priority will be campaigning against the Tories’ £12bn welfare cuts as well as the snoopers’ charter and the abolition of the Human Rights Act. And of course we will campaign to stay within the EU once the referendum comes along. But we need to campaign for things, as well — for example, for more house-building (resisting the temptation to run local NIMBY campaigns as a short-cut to local popularity) and for small/medium-sized businesses (ensuring they can compete on a genuinely level-playing field).

And finally…

I’ll be supporting Tim Farron for leader
I have enormous respect for both Tim Farron and Norman Lamb: exceptional campaigners, great communicators. But the party needs to feel good about itself right now, to be re-motivated. Sure, we have 7,000+ new members and there is talk of a fightback. But it’s going to be a long, hard slog over the next 5 years — and beyond. We need someone with energy, enthusiasm and charisma. Tim has those three qualities in abundance.

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5 comments

Yes, I pretty much agree with all you say, you were a lot closer to being right than I was.

by Paul Barker on May 11, 2015 at 3:02 pm. Reply #

Stephen, one correction. Lord Oakshott and John Pugh were not being gloomy, they were being right. You were being relatively gung ho. Many others were being delusional. Sadly I was not persuasive, nor were John or Matthew, but those who rely on hard facts, as opposed to a soft fuzzy vision, rarely are until it is too late.

by David Evans on May 11, 2015 at 4:25 pm. Reply #

Agree with most of what you’ve written, but not this: “If the Coalition had been on the ballot paper last Thursday, its victory would have been far more convincing than was David Cameron’s.” Just not sure. I think we just have to accept that right-leaning voters didn’t want Tory-lite when they could have the real thing, and left-leaning voters don’t want ‘traitors’ that propped up a Tory government. There is a small core, centrist Liberal vote. In a fair electoral system it could also be an influential power-broker. But since we don’t have that system we’re doomed to be the tennis ball, being whacked around the court.

by Arthur Snell on May 11, 2015 at 5:53 pm. Reply #

Another hurdle will be that we are no longer 3rd party! And our percentage airtime will be even lower than in government, if that is conceivably possible. It has troubled me that in the first years of the last parliament at the height of the cuts, the BBC coverage was about the 4 men who lead the coalition – but as the economy improved it was all Cameron and Osbourne; never quite understood that one? Anyway, in terms of news coverage, we’re buried – that’s what I’m saying!

by John Minard on May 11, 2015 at 8:02 pm. Reply #

‘The party moved from being a think-tank with bright ideas to having to work through the hard grind of implementing policies in government’ – that really put my teeth on edge – it really is patronising twaddle Stephen.

‘I’m not sure there was any way in which last Thursday would have ended less messily.’ Again, that’s a pretty thoughtless statement and a continuation of the Cleggite victim of circumstance narrative. Nick Clegg didn’t have an exit strategy for goodness sake – beyond milking his luck and the Party, to stay in Government as long as he could (when liberals seeks to decentralise and ensure checks on executive power, Clegg just wanted to ensure he was a member of the executive, despite his Party’s declining fortunes continually undermining his hand in Govt).

‘Rule 101 of electoral politics: you start with where the voters are.’ – if you really believe I’m not sure why it took you until 2014 to call for Clegg to go

by Paul Pettinger on May 12, 2015 at 12:04 am. Reply #

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