Decline and Fall: how Coalition killed the Lib Dems (almost)

by Stephen Tall on January 20, 2016

ashdwon hat

The release yesterday by Labour of Margaret Beckett’s report into her party’s election defeat reminds me to post here my article – published in the Journal of Liberal History’s special autumn issue, Coalition and the Liberal Democrats – looking at my party’s experiences.

At 10pm on 7 May, 2015, Lib Dems experienced our very own ‘JFK moment’ – we all remember where we were – when the BBC exit poll was released showing the party scythed down from 57 to just 10 MPs.

Some, like our campaign chair Paddy Ashdown, refused to admit the possibility, famously promising David Dimblelby that, if it were accurate, “I will publicly eat my hat on your programme”. Many more of us had an instant sinking feeling in our guts, recalling how accurately the 2010 poll had predicted the Lib Dems were destined to lose more seats than at any election since 1970.

If anything, the psephologists were over-optimistic this time: in forecasting the party would reach double figures, they inflated our result by 25 per cent.

No-one – not even the most pessimistic, coalition-hating, Clegg-allergic, Orange Book-phobic Lib Dem – had thought it would be that bad. 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 was the challenger.

What was quite stunning – utterly, compellingly, breathtakingly unforeseen – was the scale of our defeat at the hands of our Conservative coalition partners in the suburbs and rural areas we had thought were our fortresses. None of us had seen that coming.

Thinking I could detect some kind of 1992-style Tory bounce-back in the final few days of the campaign, I got in touch with a top Lib Dem strategist to ask, “should we be worried that Cameron’s schedule is targeting so many Lib Dem-held seats? Do they actually sniff 300+ seats?” No, I was assured, the Conservatives were “wasting their time in Twickenham and Yeovil”. Tell that to Vince Cable and David Laws.

In one top Lib Dem target, where the party ended up finishing third, I was told by a highly experienced activist that “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.”

So how did it happen? What caused the most disastrous election result for the Lib Dems since… well, pretty much since records began?

**

The answer is almost too obvious: our decision to enter into a coalition government with the Conservatives during the most severe economic downturn in a century.

However, it’s worth taking a step back to make another obvious point, but one which is now often forgotten: the Lib Dems hadn’t expected to be in government in 2010.

The widespread assumption had been (from the moment Gordon Brown flunked ‘the election that never was’ in October 2007) that David Cameron’s Conservatives would triumph. In April 2010, the Independent on Sunday asked eight pollsters to predict the result: all eight forecast an overall Conservative majority. The Lib Dems were widely seen to be on the defensive against this blue tide; after all, the Tories were the nearest challengers in most of the party’s held seats.

Then, two things happened. First, the global financial crisis rocked the domestic political scene. Cameron’s flimsy platform of compassionate Conservatism – that through “sharing the proceeds of future growth” it was possible both to cut taxes and protect public services – collapsed, and his party retreated to its right-wing, austerity comfort zone. The public looked on, nervously, at the thought of the untested Cameron and his even younger shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, taking the helm at this moment of crisis. The Tories’ poll lead narrowed.

And secondly, the first ever televised leaders’ debate between the three main party leaders took place, with the fresh-faced Clegg besting both Cameron and Gordon Brown. The Lib Dem poll surge it sparked proved to be phosphorescently flashy and brief. But even the small ratings boost probably helped deprive the Conservatives of the majority they had expected to be theirs, as well as saving a clutch of Lib Dem seats – eight MPs won with majorities of less than 5 per cent over their Tory challenger – that might otherwise have been lost.

It’s intriguing to pose the counter-factual: what if the Conservatives had edged a victory in May 2010 and the Coalition had never been formed?

Cameron would have had to have tried to keep his rebellious backbenchers in check without the assistance of the hefty majority the Lib Dem bloc of MPs afforded him. Chances are he would have struggled at least as badly as his predecessor Tory PM, John Major. Meanwhile Labour, denuded of the instant unity conferred by its misplaced outrage at the ‘ConDem’ coalition, might well have descended into Miliband v Miliband civil war. It would have been an ideal scenario for the Lib Dems, the perfect launch-pad for further gains from both parties.

True, an alternative reality based on nothing more than idle speculation – but the tantalising glimpse of what might have been is worth bearing in mind, not least because it’s what the Lib Dem leadership had planned for. One of Nick Clegg’s first decisions as party leader at the start of 2008 was to commission what became known as The Bones Report (after its author, Professor Chris Bones, a Lib Dem activist and management expert) “into how the Liberal Democrats’ internal organisation could be built upon to double our number of MPs over the next two general elections”. The implicit assumption was that the party would grow, rapidly but incrementally, for a further decade in opposition.

**

As it was, the party was faced on 7 May, 2010, with the Hobson’s choice of doing a deal with the Tories. This was the only option available for which the numbers added up to more than the 323 MPs required for a bare majority, and so offered a period of stable government. The alternative, most of us assumed (I still think correctly), was a minority Tory administration forcing a second cut-and-run election within months and a resulting vicious squeeze on the Lib Dems.

However, few of us were under any illusions quite how dangerous a Lib/Con pact might be to the party’s electoral fortunes. As I wrote on the LibDemVoice website on the Saturday morning after the election:

“… many of our members, and even more of our supporters, would identify themselves as ‘progressives’, a vague term which can be reasonably translated as ‘anti-Tory’. There is a very real risk that by throwing in our lot with Cameron, or even just appearing to, those progressive voters will desert the Lib Dems in favour of Labour, and that may threaten many of the 57 Lib Dem seats we now hold.”

Despite these fears, though, it was a collective, almost unanimous, decision. No official count was taken at the special Birmingham conference on 16 May, 2010, which sealed the deal, but estimates in the hall, where some 1,500 Lib Dem members debated the formation of the Coalition, suggested only about 50 conference representatives voted against the motion endorsing the agreement: the rest of the hundreds eligible to vote were all in favour.

Initial enthusiasm was understandable. The Lib Dems had been out of government for close on a century, and the prospect of our policies, approved by our conference, being implemented in government by our ministers was a glistening one.

What is perhaps more remarkable is that even with the benefit of hindsight, it appears most of us would do it again. When LibDemVoice asked party members in May 2015, “Knowing all you know now, would you have still gone in to a coalition with the Conservatives back in 2010?”, 74 per cent said yes.

**

At first glance that enthusiasm appears odd, given we can date the Lib Dems’ election catastrophe to that point-of-no-return decision. For many members, though, it wasn’t the signing of the Coalition deal which signed the party’s death warrant; it was our actions within the Coalition.

This debate matters because it has big implications for whether the party should consider coalition again. Is there something intrinsic about being a junior party in a Westminster coalition which means you’ve lost before you’ve started? Or is your fate in your own hands – is it possible to make a success of it, if handled well?

The biggest single plummet in Lib Dem vote share occurred in those first six months. Entering into the Coalition with the Conservatives was a toxic act for many 2010 Lib Dem voters, and our rating plunged from 23 per cent in May, to 13 per cent by the end of the year. The tuition fees U-turn coincided with this, though didn’t in itself precipitate the collapse. It did, however, do longer term reputational damage to the party (and, of course, to Nick Clegg, whose infamous 2010 pledge to the NUS to oppose any increase spectacularly backfired).

What followed was a long-drawn-out decline. This was the period in which the party found itself out-numbered by the Conservatives in government, out-oppositioned by Labour on the centre-left, and out-flanked by anti-establishment parties untainted by government office with more strikingly populist messages: Ukip’s anti-immigration dog-whistle, the SNP’s pro-nationalism placebo, the Greens’ anti-austerity posturing.

Quite simply, we disappeared from view, becoming seen as an irrelevance as our support dwindled: a vicious spiral. By the time of the 2015 general election, and our doomed attempt to fight a first-past-the-post election on the basis of being everyone’s second favourite party, we had been ruthlessly squeezed down to just eight per cent.

**

Was it worth it? Let’s look at the profit-and-loss account, the debits and credits of our record in government.

The Lib Dems were not short of achievements. There wasn’t a senior Lib Dem who’s wasn’t able to rehearse, when challenged “But what have you done?”, the line that the our three of our top four 2010 priorities – tax-cuts for low-earners, the Pupil Premium, the Green Investment Bank – had been delivered.

Or who wouldn’t point to other policies – like infant free school meals, or same-sex marriage, or more apprenticeships – which were successfully pushed by the Lib Dems in office.

Or who wouldn’t highlight Conservative policies, such as hire-and-fire at will or repeal of the Human Rights Act or the proposed “snoopers’ charter”, which the Lib Dems had vetoed.

It is a creditable litany, especially for a party with just nine per cent of MPs.

The trouble was, the public didn’t notice.

At least they were even-handed, ignoring not only our triumphs but also our disasters and treating both those imposters just the same. As the British Election Study, which has been examining how and why the public votes as they do in every election since 1964, noted:

“The Lib Dems did not do so badly because they were blamed for the failings of the Coalition; rather, the majority of voters simply seem to have felt that they were an irrelevant component of the last government.”

Two examples suffice. Among the 44 per cent of voters who though the economy was getting better, just 19 per cent credited the Lib Dems compared to 73 per cent who thought it was thanks to the Conservatives. Meanwhile, of the two-thirds of voters who thought the NHS had got worse under the Coalition, just 19 per cent held the Lib Dems responsible while 69 per cent pinned the blame on the Tories.

Unfair? Mostly, yes. But like sailors complaining about the sea, it’s pointless to wag our finger at the voters.

Moreover, I don’t think I was the only Lib Dem who, as the Coalition drew to a close, felt a nagging worry that while our party’s successes were things which the Conservatives had little trouble with, the Conservatives’ successes (too-tight-too-soon austerity, over-harsh crackdowns on social security like the ‘bedroom tax’, Andrew Lansley’s pointlessly expensive health reforms) were things we should have had no truck with.

Sure, our ministers did their best, and yes, the Coalition was markedly less right-wing, and in some areas even quite liberal, compared to full-blown Tory rule. But – let us ask ourselves honestly – did we truly succeed in moving the country in a sufficiently liberal direction for enough people during our five years in government given the price we ended up paying?

Because it wasn’t just in May 2015 that the Lib Dems were wiped out. That was simply the culmination of five years of humiliating defeats at every level of representative government.

In the European parliament, 11 of our 12 MEPs were defeated. In Scotland, we lost 12 of the 17 seats we were defending. (Wales, where we lost only one of our previous six AMs, was a relative success.) Our local government base was hacked down year after year, from 3,944 councillors in 2010 to just 1,801 in 2015. Today we control six councils, down from 25 in 2010. Only in the unelected House of Lords has Lib Dem representation grown.

For five years of restraining the Conservatives at Westminster, plus a handful of policy advances, the Lib Dems sacrificed decades of hard-won gains across the country. The opportunity cost of lost liberal influence has been huge.

**

Was there anything the party could have done to staunch the losses we suffered in May 2015? I’m doubtful. We were, I believe, destined for heavy defeat the moment we joined the coalition.

Too Tory for our progressive voters, not Tory enough for our small-c conservative voters. The voters who remained – pragmatic, rational liberals (many of whom have since swelled the ranks of the party as new members) – are too thinly-spread to win us many seats.

Maybe it would be different under proportional representation (our eight per cent 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 by the inevitable pincer movement. Even our MPs’ much-vaunted local incumbency isn’t, it turns out, a magic wand.

The party’s campaign itself has been much-criticised, in particular for Nick Clegg’s mantra that the purpose of the Lib Dems was to “bring a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one”.

This kind of split-the-difference positioning was unloved by activists – who labelled it defensive and unambitious – yet it was the only realistic option available. I call it an option, but it wasn’t, not really. It was thrust on us by the voters when they popped the ‘Cleggmania’ balloon in May 2010 and then torpedoed electoral reform by rejecting the Alternative Vote a year later.

Those who denounced the strategy of liberal centrism were hiding from the truth that the party’s only route into government was in coalition with one of the two main parties, either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour.

That inevitably meant compromise, pegging the Lib Dems as the party of moderate, fair-minded pragmatism. We may not have wanted to place ourselves in the centre, but that’s precisely where our circumstances put us. We had no choice but to make a virtue from necessity.

An appeal to radical liberalism – land value tax, proportional representation, a Citizen’s Income! – would merely have invited derision given our necessarily constrained record in Coalition, and that we would have been unable to explain how such manifesto promises could plausibly be delivered.

Ultimately, the 2015 general election simply wasn’t about us. It was not a change election, but a fear election. The spectre of Prime Minister Miliband in hock to the SNP appears to have spooked enough voters into putting to one side their doubts about the Conservatives, to hold onto nurse for fear of something worse.

Former Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne was surely right when he said: “If the Coalition was on the ballot paper, it would win in May”. But it wasn’t, so the only logical choice for those voters anxious to avoid a change of government was to vote Conservative.

**

On completing the coalition negotiations in 2010, William Hague is said to have told his wife, Ffion: “I think I’ve just killed the Liberal Democrats.”

Well, perhaps. After all, we were just 24,968 votes – the combined majorities of the eight rump Lib Dem MPs – away from being wiped out. And, assuming the Tories now move to implement the long-overdue constituency boundary reforms (blocked by the Lib Dems in 2012 in retaliation for the Tories kaiboshing House of Lords reform), our notional number of seats is a mere four.

Just because we feel we’ve hit rock bottom doesn’t automatically guarantee things will now get better.

But we have 18,000 new party members and we have a new leader, Tim Farron. Which other political force in the next five years will be making the case for being pro-immigration and pro-Europe, for reforming our drugs laws and our political system, for championing civil liberties and the environment, and for opposing inheritance-tax cuts which benefit only the wealthiest and tax-credits cuts which hurt the working poor?

For five years the Lib Dems were the opposition to the Conservatives within the Coalition. Now that’s done, and with Labour clueless about how to respond to their defeat, it looks like the Lib Dems will be the only effective national opposition to the Conservatives in this parliament as well.

We’re not dead yet.

6 comments

Stephen, as someone with a high profile, I imagine those you spoke to at LDHQ fobbed you off about prospects. If you google Liberator Magazine + Nick Harvey you will find a piece that the former MP wrote reporting the admission that every internal party poll conducted in the short and general election campaigns showed the LD candidate losing to his/her main opponent.

Also, following the steep declines in support for the LDs by December 2010, all prior canvas returns had been made suspect – so local parties campaigning on the basis of pre-2011 canvassing were deluding themselves.

The scale of the dealt was not really surprising. The Western Morning Post twice, prior to the election, had polling which showed a wipe out for LDs in the West Country. Not everyone was surprised by the LDs showing in seats. One member of the Lib Dem Voice members’ forum predicted 9 seats.

Were these results inevitable given the outcome of in 2010?

First, the leadership chose not to conduct coalition on a ‘transactional’ basis. The way LDs managed their part in the Coalition went totally against the wisdom built up by the party over the previous 40 years.

Second, was the leadership right to remain in coalition to the end of the Parliament?

It was possible to argue when economic recovery had been realised in 2013/14 that the ‘job’ had been done. David Steel ended the Lib/Lad pact prior to the end of the 1974/79 Parliament and the party made a decent recovery with a sufficient Parliamentary base in 1979 to take advantage of (not be overwhelmed by) the creation of the SDP.

These seem far more important considerations than wondering whether the 2015 election campaign could have been fought differently.

by Bill le Breton on January 20, 2016 at 11:22 am. Reply #

Bill – thanks for the comment.

On Nick Harvey’s Liberator piece, I’d say two things:

1) it’s not what he was saying before the election (‘Harvey concedes the Lib Dems will suffer in the popular vote. But he is confident that the parliamentary party will largely survive largely intact’ – HuffPo, Nov 2013);

2) the party’s internal polls were more similar than different to Ashcroft’s constituency polling, as Mark Pack has noted – eg, ‘That both Lib Dems and Ashcroft were wrong doesn’t mean the Lib Dem polls were done without fault, but it does suggest that some of the criticisms made at the time of them about their methodology were off because Ashcroft’s polls, with their very different methodology, were also off.’

by Stephen Tall on January 20, 2016 at 11:39 am. Reply #

Interesting.
Differs a wee bit from your general commentary.
You do not mention style and tactics.
Businesslike, hard headed work in public, no rose garden, no joint meetings, clear opposition made in public.
Style of sitting as a single group of MPs.
I would be less angry if leadership had suggested any of the above. Resignation at least after Euroelections became a necessity. Probably not fair but essential.
Personally, I would have pulled the plug after Cameron broke gentleman’s agreement on AV, though that was inadequate. After that, although stuff was done, we knew we could not trust him.

by Sadie Smith on January 20, 2016 at 2:08 pm. Reply #

Stephen, Nick Harvey only became aware of the polling he refers to in September 2015. He was duped like most others.

In his piece he also ponders whether ‘the true horror of the picture was concealed … for fear that, if it had become wider known it would have opened serious debate about the coalition and the leader’.

You may recall that I raised what I considered serious failings in the internal constituency polls – outrageous ‘pushing’ questions immediately prior to a second VI question.

It would be useful to know how the answers to the first VI question compared to the final results in those constituency polls.

Similarly, Ashcroft over egged the incumbency factor.

But a major element in an incumbency advantage (previously higher among LD MPs) must come from local infrastructure. What the party failed to research or appreciate was the woeful state of that local infrastructure. Too many activists had left the field.

by Bill le Breton on January 20, 2016 at 3:15 pm. Reply #

I think Sadie Smith’s comments about avoiding the Rose Garden and pursuing an arm’s length, transactional approach to the coalition from day one are absolutely correct. My feeling is that we could have maintained a vote share somewhere in the mid-teens and held 20-30 seats simply by keeping a safe distance from the Tories.

However, I don’t think ditching the leader midway through the Parliament would have achieved anything. The perception that the Lib Dems are weak and unprincipled was fixed by the end of year one and is still something that we’re living with now.

The reputational damage from the early, united front approach to the coalition will take a few more years to undo. If we do manage to get back to a position where another coalition is possible then, in my view, we shouldn’t rule out returning to government. It just needs to be stage managed a bit better next time.

by Andrew Chamberlain on January 20, 2016 at 8:15 pm. Reply #

[…] 2. Decline and fall: how coalition killed the Lib Dems (almost) by Stephen Tall on Stephen Tall. Was it worth it? Did we achieve enough in our five years in Government. Stephen answers some tough questions. […]

by Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #447 on January 24, 2016 at 7:00 pm. Reply #

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