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.

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