Ledges, cliffs and the myth of short-term factors. Or what Ryan Coetzee got right

Hello! Is that the Liberal Democrats down there?

Hello! Is that the Liberal Democrats down there?

Just six days after the 2010 general election, and on the day of the famous Rose Garden press conference at which Cameron and Clegg launched the coalition government, both ComRes and ICM started hitting the phones, commencing the fieldwork for the first two national voting intention polls of the last Parliament.

By the time the Parliament was over, there had been a jaw dropping 2,050 – more than the previous four Parliaments put together. For all the problems with the polls when it came to the 2015 general election, the story they told for the Liberal Democrats was – right from those very first two – consistent and turned out right. The status quo for the Liberal Democrats all the way through was down, down, deeper and down.

There is a little argument to be had, with polling spreadsheets at the ready and magnifying glasses deployed, over whether Liberal Democrat support immediate fell off a cliff edge the moment the party went into coalition in 2010 or whether there was a small ledge before the party plunged off the edge a few weeks later.

That dispute between cliffers and ledgers comes with some significance because if you’re a cliffer the lesson is that the very act of going into coalition was what did for the party, whilst if you’re a ledger you can argue that it was how the party went about coalition that was the problem. That dispute holds a useful lesson for future hung Parliaments, but either way one thing is clear: by the time the Browne Review into tuition fees was published on 12 October 2010, three days after Vince Cable had emailed party members ruling out a graduate tax, much of the damage had already been done with the party having already lost between a third and a half of its 2010 general election support.

Although tuition fees have become emblematic of what happened in the last Parliament, they are mostly just that – the damage was already well underway by then and didn’t accelerate thereafter. Poll ratings started down, carried on down and then stayed down.

In retrospect “tuition fees” are the label people may have used for hurling anger at the party, but the anger was already building almightily before anyone knew what would be done on tuition fees, before Browne had concluded and whilst Vince Cable was still arguing with colleagues.

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. more

Which is why Ryan Coetzee’s controversial and unapologetic piece about the Liberal Democrat general election campaign contains an important grain of truth that has been mostly neglected in the heat generated by his comment, “should we have run the campaign differently, given what we knew? I don’t think so”.

The grain of truth rests in his point that the die was cast back in 2010 (insert exact date depending on whether you are a cliffer or a ledger). By the time he took up his role as Nick Clegg’s strategy advisor in late 2012 it was basically too late. The mistakes made in the general election campaign mattered, but mattered in the scale of the defeat not the fact of the defeat.

In having the party’s fate settled several years out from the general election, the Liberal Democrats were not unusual because, in fact, that’s a usual part of politics.

Almost always the party that’s ahead in January of general election year goes on to win the contest (especially when you discarded the Parliaments where the polls then get the election horribly wrong and so are suspect). Or, if you step away from numbers and look at events, the big events are usually set early in the Parliament.

Ed Milband’s election and the course he set on, epitomised by Neil Kinnock’s fateful complacency when he celebrated, “We’ve got our party back”, was what did for Labour, not the Ed Stone or Question Time special during the general election. Crashing out of the ERM in 1992 did for the Tories in 1997, just as Labour too was sunk in 2010 by economic events of years before.

For all the excitement, expense and attention of national general election campaigns they’re usually irrelevant froth when it comes to the big picture, which has been settled years before.

That makes the love of political donors in donating close to an election particularly a poor use of their money – if elections are set years in advance, that’s really when you should give money too. It also makes the love of the media in upping their political coverage just when it matters least impressively misplaced.

So in that key respect Ryan Coetzee was right. By the time he came on the scene, let alone by the time of the general election, it was mostly too late.

The myth of short-term factors and the magnetic attraction that the election campaigns circuses have hide the truth: it’s the big, long-lasting events years out which are what you really need to watch out for.

UPDATE: Stephen Tall has examined the cliff versus ledge question further.

Sandra Taylor
Sandra Taylor

I recognise this picture much more than the Labour hatred and rhetoric which our own supporters were far too quick to parrot without thinking it through. The fact that too many voters felt betrayed by the outcome of the Coalition did not mean it was the wrong thing to do. First the Lib Dems became the scapegoat for the economic downturn and now we are not there to blame, attention is turned to attacking the EU. Sadly most of this is (ill informed) media driven too. So sad. :(


Am I that unusual in having been ecstatic about the Coalition being the outcome of the 2010 Election - LibDems with Conservatives: as perfect as you can get!?

Nick Clegg actually got LibDems into Government and that was amazing!

For years I had been hoping for a Coalition, as surely the best brains from different parties working together, would be the best for the country?

I have read that in The Times, before the Election, a Tim Montgomerie admitted that his concerns about the Coalition were unfounded............."the country has enjoyed 5 years of stable and successful government." He said that "for that, we owe thanks to 'the unsung hero of our times': Nick Clegg.

There is more, but I daresay others have read this too and I certainly hope that Nick Clegg has had it pointed out to him!

I am very disappointed that so many LibDem voters seem so fickle.

Of course, the voting system is very unfair, but we had a referendum about that and nothing changed. What hope have we got now?

Beryl C.

Dave Tooke
Dave Tooke

I agree, the early days in any parliament are critical, and campaigning starts from the declaration.

we have 4 immediate sets of campaigns ahead of us, and we need to be active in each one:

In support of the Human Rights Act

The European Referendum

The County Council elections

The next round of District Council elections in 4 years

All of which lead to the the next General Election in 5 years - assuming the Tories don't fail a confidence vote.

We need the grass roots of the party to be active and vocal and committed - and to make ground at each stage.

John Earle
John Earle

One lesson that I hope has been learned (although no one is talking about it yet) is the folly of making statements containing phrases such as 'under no circumstances' or 'these are red lines for us'.  We should emphasise the principles on which we stand as an honest statement of our intentions.  What we must never do is to tie our hands in such a way that it makes a change of direction look like a U-turn.

The British public does not understand flexibility or indeed co-operation.  Change is viewed as weakness.  We need to argue for what we believe in and avoid any rigid fixed statements.


Let's imagine a 'what if ...'

1.  what if all of our MPs had voted against the rise in tuition fees and it had been defeated;

2.  what if we'd killed the NHS reforms early on;

3.  what if we'd voted against and defeated the bedroom tax and;

4.  what if Nick had never agreed to debate with Nigel.

Would the coalition have fallen?  I don't think so but Lib Dem members and supporters would have felt a whole lot better and it would have felt that we actually had a bit of a spine!

Does that matter?  Yes, I think it would have mattered to quite a few people and would definitely have saved us a few seats.

David Evans
David Evans

I think your starting premise that there were only two views of coalition, either the cliffers or the ledgers is mistaken.What was quite feasible, but not allowed for in the first two is that coalition would initially be bad, but it could and would be recovered as we made a good job of controlling the worst aspects of the Conservatives, and many of those who had left would start to return.However this assumed that Nick would be prepared to control the Conservatives in a way that demonstrated the real value of Liberal Democracy.Nick’s refusal to change from his “joined at the hip” strategy for at least four and a half years prevented this approach evolving.

However, from the moment Mr Coetzee came on the scene he resolutely supported the failed approach and produced disastrously flawed statistics that undermined those who knew that we had to change or we would be obliterated.  His premise that it was too late to change things even as far back as 2012 when he started in the job only holds water if you assume that the party would never change.Of course given the fact that his polls showed things would be OK, the chance the party would change was drastically reduced.

Finally, when the last chance came, at the key moment in the campaign to replace Nick post the 2014 debacle, Julian Huppert spoke at the Cambridge meeting and told them that if they voted to replace Nick, Julian would lose his seat.  It would be interesting to find what information he was being given at the time, but I presume it was that he could still win.  However, the end result was that the vote was lost, Nick was reinforced and the party doomed. Julian finally lost by 599 votes.


Mr Coetzee may not have been the architect of our party’s doom, but he was a key designer.

Nigel Ashton
Nigel Ashton

I agree that 'Tuition Fees' was a post facto rationalisation for people who had already deserted the Party, rather than the cause of their desertion.

Perhaps we should cotton on to the American concept of EMILY - Early Money Is Like Yeast.

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