Ryan Coetzee’s take on what went wrong for the Lib Dems in the general election

Ryan Coetzee is, rather like his predecessor Richard Reeves, likely to go down in the history of the Liberal Democrats as a controversial figure. But whilst Richard’s controversy was mostly confined to being within the Whitehall bubble, for Ryan his close association with such a disastrous general election result means his likely to be the more talked about record.

He’s written a must-read piece for The Guardian giving his take on what went wrong. I doubt many others will agree with all of it, but it makes a coherent case that is well worth digesting as part of the party’s post-mortems:

People shy away from articulating the emotional consequences of a loss so comprehensive, preferring catch-alls such as “devastated” and the very British “gutted”. The full range goes something like this: disbelieving, horrified, guilty, embarrassed, angry, vulnerable, resentful.

Our campaign was fought on three fronts [against the SNP, Labour and the Conservatives], and we lost on all of them.

On the point about how faulty the party’s intelligence on its prospects in key seats turned out to be (on which I’ve written about here), Ryan reinforces the point that the party’s data and the final results were at variance:

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…

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 line.

Where there’s likely to be the most controversy over Ryan’s views is when he makes this point:

Should we have run the campaign differently, given what we knew? I don’t think so. We correctly identified the threats facing us on each front, and did our best to counter them. We made a coherent, liberal case to the voters, offering both a strong economy and a fair society. 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, 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.

Actually, the party could have done things differently. In the face of what he calls The Fear from the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats could have talked down rather than talked up fears of a hung Parliament. Rather than repeating the problems of 1992, the party could have tried to do the opposite.

Despite that disagreement with him over the campaign, I do agree with his point about how the party needs to learn to look after its core voters:

I have no doubt that going into coalition was the right thing to do for the country, but I can’t help feeling it is the root cause of our current woes … I do think we should have done more to look after the interests of our core supporters in the first half of the parliament.

His conclusion from all this?

My tentative conclusion is that it is probably not possible to succeed electorally in coalition government under first-past-the-post while remaining equidistant from the two big parties. If we can’t win the fight for proportional representation, it may be that we have either to stay in opposition or pick a side.

Firmly picking a side is what worked for the Liberal Democrats so well in the run up to the party’s 1997 breakthrough. But that requires both one of the main parties to be so unpopular and the other to have moved so much closer to the Lib Dem territory for it to be a palatable approach.

That isn’t just up to the Liberal Democrats and the party shouldn’t bank on it being an option available for 2020.

UPDATE:  A longer version of Ryan Coetzee’s piece, including his reflections on Nick Clegg’s liberalism, is here.

For more on what I think went wrong, see see the lessons in Liberal Democrat Newswire #65, my piece on what went wrong with the Lib Dem polling and the repetition of the mistakes of 1992. But not everything went wrong: 10 things the Lib Dems got right in the general election.

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Bianchi Boy
Bianchi Boy

Lib Dems just seem to be missing the point somewhat. We seem to have regressed to a cosy position of "Joining the Coalition was the right thing to do for the Country but the electorate have punished us for it". 

The reasons why we lost are painful but clear.

- The Tuition Fees pledge and the Tories (in a stroke of evil genius) giving the job to Vince to hike them up. Despite the apology, it never went away

- Clegg shifting the party to the right on entering Coalition saying "we can't be a left-wing fringe party" alienated tactical voters from the left who will never come back. We betrayed their vote and rubbed it in their faces

- Clegg's simple calculation was on entering government, the wider electorate will have to take the Lib Dems more seriously. Yet the way he entered government by hugging the Tories close was catastrophic. It wasn't the fact of Coalition that was the problem - it was the fact that Clegg wanted the Coalition to act as one party with him as DPM. So many Lib Dem commentators seem to ignore this. It drives me to distraction. Voters to the right in the campaign decided "Why vote for the Lib Dems, I may as well vote Tory" 

- Attacking Labour for 4 years 11 months (whilst in Coalition) then the Tories for 1 month (during the campaign) screamed of a lack of authenticity - and again told any voter who identified anywhere to the left of the Tories not to vote for the Lib Dems

- You cannot win by defining yourself as what you're not - look at the Labour Party. The campaign , as Mark said, at times verged on bizarre.


I don't think the LibDems should be utterly downcast after this election, for three reasons. First, the fact that the LibDems acted (self-sacrificingly perhaps) in the aftermath of the 2010 election for the good of the British people is likely to be remembered for a long time. Second, it  allowed the LibDems to show they could be a responsible party of government - people like Danny Alexander can no longer be dismissed as pretendy-politicians or lightweights.  Third, it seems unlikely Labour will ever again be in government, so it seems quite likely that there's a great gaping hole opening up where 'a plausible opposition' should be.

The LibDems would be doing the whole of Britain a favour if they stuck to Liberal principles (ie, liberty & economic responsibility together with social progress minus class-hatred) and sought to replace Labour as the main opposition.  Good luck. 


@Reconstruct I would say there is a gap in the political market for a truly 'liberal' party. Ie one that is both economically and socially liberal. In fact one that would fit in well in Sweden - its a little known fact that the Sweden (and the other Scandinavian countries) is economically very liberal. Its taxes on business and incomes are low, regulation of business is low as well. It just levies very high consumption and local taxes and then uses that revenue for its redistribution.Also much of the taxing and spending is done at a very local level, giving a far greater democratic contro.

However moving to that sort of vision would require a massive change of attitude for the Left in the UK, which has become very much a controlling ideology - trying to control the minutiae of everyone's lives, both socially and economically. Moving to a 'We're going to tax your expenditure heavily, but otherwise let you do what you want' attitude would blow too many people's minds on the Left I suspect. Many go into politics precisely because they want to tell other people what to do, and the idea of giving that up would not be very popular.


@Jim @Reconstruct You may well be right about the Leftist mindset, but it's now pretty clear that it's a minority pursuit and a shrinking one too. A historic opportunity is opening up a real opportunity for people prepared to make a break. 

Derek Pierson
Derek Pierson

Surely he must take some responsibility for the disastrous "heart to the Tories; brain to Labour" campaign theme.  It said we're aiming to go into coalition with anyone at all.  Coalition was a big turn-off to potential LibDem voters in the last Parliament, why on earth would they vote for more of the same?

Richard Shaw
Richard Shaw

You do not mention Norman Baker in Lewes with a 7600 majority and incumbent since 1997. I am afraid that he was a fool this time because he pursued a negative campaign about his opponents and principally his lady Conservative adversary. Tactically he was out of his depth in territory he knew well and it served him right.

Chris Whitehead
Chris Whitehead

Libdems needed to break free from the coalition six months before election, just to show Tories in government, to show their difference, to try and negate the effects of leading party in cmulti-party politics with first past the post.


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