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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