I thought the Liberal Democrats had slain the ghost of 1992.
I was wrong.
Not only had the party failed to slay the ghost, it eagerly participated in its resurrection as if the greater the return to past nightmares the higher the chance of success.
Press stunts, leader’s speeches, target mail, glossy leaflets, email messages, social media adverts and more were all applied to the great task of resurrecting the ghost of 1992. If it had been in pursuit of any other objective, it would been impressive. Instead, it was self-defeating.
The ghost in question is that of hung Parliaments and instability.
Prior to 2015 the consistent lesson from history – and 1992 most notoriously of all – was that if voters expect a hung Parliament, the Liberal Democrats will get squeezed as polling day approaches – and if voters fear a hung Parliament, target seats will slip away from the party in the last few days.The lesson for the Liberal Democrats: the more you talk about what you’d do in a hung Parliament, the worse you do.
It seems as if the decision to go into Coalition, whatever its other controversies, had at least slayed the fear of hung Parliaments. In the run up to May 2015 they were widely talked about without the public recoiling in fear.
That’s why during the rush of the campaign the increasing emphasis in talking about what the party would do during a hung Parliament didn’t seem so bad to me, especially as it was based on policy red lines rather than ministerial arrangements.
It seemed a good way to get Liberal Democrat policies in the media whilst also making the point to voters that if they voted Lib Dem they had a good chance of getting some Lib Dem policies in action.
Yet in the last few days of the campaign this was all taken to extremes, including the quite bizarre photo op boasting of ‘Unity, Stability, Decency’.
At the time I instinctively recoiled from using it when I was hunting for some Liberal Democrat photos to use. Rested now and with more time to think it looks even odder than what my instincts warned me about in the rush:
Just as in the European elections in 2014, what started out as a very promising message became during the campaign something very different. “The Party of In” lost its reforming edge and stopped being used as a springboard to talk about jobs, the environment and so on. Instead it became a message of “Europe, ra ra ra”, losing the voters along the way.
This time a message about how the Liberal Democrats would do good things in a hung Parliament became one of playing up fears of what a hung Parliament would bring.
The Lib Dem solution to that – lots of Lib Dem MPs – was lost as a second-rate answer in the eyes of voters who instead decided that the answer to such fears was instead to vote for one of the big parties.
It was 1992 all over again – and not only for the pollsters.