Sunday, 10 May 2015

What the General Election told us

Paddy Ashdown: doesn't he have some
headgear to get his teeth into?

It’s a few days now since the voters of Great Britain gave us an election result that was as surprising as it was unpalatable for liberals (and I mean in all parties and none, rather than merely Lib Dems).

I didn’t wish to write anything in the immediate aftermath because, like many of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, the hurt was very real. I might have come across as too defensive, or unwilling to accept the verdict of the electorate.

During the last few weeks I’ve asked myself some hard questions – the result of the election doesn’t necessarily answer them but it confirms a few of my suspicions. Questions not about left or right, Orange Book or Social Liberal, or the merits of coalition – but about what our values are. For example, how we treat people with mental health problems (especially if they are PPCs admitted to hospital on the week nominations close) says far more about who were are as a party than dozens of positive pronouncements on mental health policy. The existential crisis so many observers are openly discussing is not new, and should have been apparent to any impartial observer for some time. 

Actions always speak louder than words. And if anyone wanted to know what the Lib Dem values were – the best way of judging that was to see how we behaved during the election campaign. 

Before I consider the campaign from a Lib Dem perspective, it’s perhaps best to firstly state the obvious. The SNP got precisely what they wanted from the election. So did the Conservatives. The latter means that we now have Trident renewal, potential withdrawal from the EU, repeal of the Human Rights Act, EVEL, the Snoopers’ Charter, acceleration of private sector involvement in the NHS, further erosion of welfare, cuts to renewable energy and the further erosion of welfare to look forward to.

The SNP’s success was not remotely unsurprising to me, although the scale of Labour’s collapse was utterly stunning. Our own predicament in Scotland has been apparent for some time, and back in December 2012 I forecast our being reduced to a single MP in Orkney & Shetland If our losses in Scotland were painful but perhaps expected, the annihilation in England certainly was not – I had predicted 23 MPs (i.e. around 1992 levels) because I had believed that the Conservatives would be in no position to benefit at our expense. Opinion polls seemed to back this theory, with most giving the Lib Dems somewhere between 22 and 31 seats, mainly where our nearest challengers were Tories.

There are reasons for the SNP’s success. Some of that is down to the slick, populist campaigning machine the SNP has become. They know how to take advantage of opponent’s weaknesses in ruthless fashion. They have a leader who is an able communicator. They have, in a word, credibility. Again, this counts for so much more than policy positions – the health and public standing of a party is not determined by manifesto commitments. However, while I acknowledge the SNP’s strength, I would also like to repeat what I’ve been saying for the last four years: that our own failures and strategic shortcomings that have contributed in no uncertain terms to the SNP’s rise. An impotent and unimaginative Scottish Labour Party has had an arguably even greater impact, but if we are to understand what has happened here in Scotland we have to look at the last 5-10 years honestly and recognise that, time after time, our tactics and messages have damaged our own interests and played into the hands of the SNP.

The SNP won in Scotland because it deserved to. If we are to make some inroads in 2016 then we need to appreciate that, rather than seek to appeal to unionists for tactical votes, we must instead demonstrate that we understand why many voted Yes and to reach out to them.  We have to listen. Moreover, we have to become more than a depository for anti-SNP votes.

Many of us expected the story of the night to be about Scotland, with the SNP potentially holding the balance of power. That they did not was due to a combination of factors: an efficient (if uninspiring) Conservative campaign, Labour’s incoherence and campaigning incompetence, media focus on potential coalitions and deals, and our own inability to hold on where we fully expected to.

We lost 49 MPs – among them good people of such calibre as Adrian Sanders (no friend of the coalition; ironic he should suffer on account of it), Lynne Featherstone, Simon Hughes, Julian Huppert, Steve Webb and Norman Baker. We lost all our female MPs. Even those like myself, who were seen as being somewhat pessimistic with predictions of returning just 23 of our previous 57 MPs, found the scale of the crushing defeat staggering. Did anyone imagine Vince Cable would lose (even his Conservative opponent?) or foresee Ed Davey looking for new employment? 

This, I believe, was part of our problem. We believed, like we did in 2011, that the electoral system would help us where we had strong incumbents. We believed the polls, and we believed our own myth of Lib Dem resilience rather than the evidence. Just like in 2011, however, we have paid a heavy price. I repeat what I said after the Holyrood elections – that the result has set the cause of liberalism back 50 years (i.e. to 1964 levels).  Not only have we lost 49 MPs, catastrophic in itself, but we have also lost hundreds of councillors, 341 deposits, and – most significantly – have become entirely irrelevant in places where we were once highly influential. To come a distant fourth place in such constituencies as Chesterfield and Camborne & Redruth (both of which we held until 2010) underlines this point and emphasises the difficulty of rebuilding once incumbency is lost.

The result makes it clear that we have made some serious miscalculations – and I’m not referring to entering coalition. For example:

·         * We were resolved to show that coalition would work. We would show that the era of two-party politics was over. If we had power, we would inevitably break the proverbial mould. We were wrong on both counts – the “new politics” now seems a distant pipedream and no party, having seen what has happened to us, would even consider coalition.
* We put so much emphasis on “putting the country first”. I don’t doubt his motivations in doing this, and Paddy Ashdown praised Nick Clegg for his willingness to prioritise the national interest. He may deserve such praise, but personally I feel the national interest may also be served by ensuring that progressive, liberal voices are able to speak loudly in the future. “Putting the country first” required a longer-term perspective rather than self-sacrifice. It's harder to serve the country with only 8 MPs and 5 MSPs.

·         * We imagined that the Tories would be worst hit by the increase in support for UKIP. As we saw on Thursday, this seemed to have little if any effect on the Tories, while in many constituencies the increase in the UKIP vote was nearly identical to the decrease in Lib Dem support. Go figure.

* We stressed that we had “transformed from a party of protest to a party of government”, and the leadership were eager for the party as a whole to embrace this new identity. Not only was it a false dichotomy, based on flawed appreciations of our party’s history, but it failed to recognise that such a transformation required the party to develop a new appeal to a different kind of voter. I have seen no evidence that any attempt was ever made to identify who we were now seeking to appeal to, or even that it was considered necessary to review our campaigning strategy to reach out to a different audience.
* We depended on the same, tired campaigning strategy. How we sell our horse races hasn’t changed – but the appeal certainly has. Attempting to persuade the public to vote tactically to keep out someone less bad is hardly the action of a “serious party of government”. We also built our campaign around opinion polls – big mistake, given that in the last two General Elections the only polls that have been remotely accurate were the exit polls. We also poured so much energy into ensuring Nick Clegg held Sheffield Hallam that it is more than likely other candidates’ chances elsewhere suffered as a result. I believe we paid an enormous price for sparing the leader’s blushes.

* Defining ourselves according to how we perceive other parties was hardly productive.  Claiming we would put "the heart into a Conservative government and the brain into a Labour one" suggested that we didn't really have either, while "You can't trust Labour with the economy or the Conservatives to deliver fairness" sounded like an endorsement of the Tories' economic plans and a willingess to trust Labour's fairness agenda.

Willie Rennie said, after the result, that he was proud of the campaign. I am proud of many of our former MPs, our candidates, our agents, and our tireless activists. I am proud of many of the messages we put out. I am proud of the dedication to the cause. But I am not proud of the campaign, or its strategists – one of whom has some headwear to be eating soon. It was amateurish, too focused on the mythical “centre-ground” and insipid soundbites, never getting to grips with the lessons from the recent past and complacent in its belief that incumbency and advocacy of tactical voting would win the day in key constituencies. It also left many candidates isolated and unsupported, something I find personally difficult to accept.

·         * We naively believed that the electorate would reward us when they could see how much we did in government. I think we did many things in government of which we should be proud, and that ultimately history will look more kindly on our party than the voters did on Thursday. This said, we failed to appreciate that electorates generally don’t reward – they punish. Building a strategy on such wilful thinking was ultimately doomed to failure.

We must learn the lessons – both of 2011 and 2015. In fact, we must learn the lessons of how we failed to adequately respond to the challenge faced after the 2011 meltdown. It therefore dismays me to hear all the talk of “fightback”, “resilience” and “rebuilding” in recent days. All this is so familiar - I heard it all four years ago, and what happened? Of course, we need to be positive, but fighting talk is not a substitute for sober reflection. Contrary to belief, the Lib Dems would not survive a nuclear war and may not even survive another election simply on the basis of blind optimism.
The cause of Liberalism has indeed been set back by half a century. It will take decades to rebuild – those who assume otherwise fail to appreciate how our party was built up in the first instance. There are no quick fixes and even fewer certainties. I want our party to survive, but it will only do so if we can ditch the “full steam ahead” approach and make the necessary changes to our thinking.

We have to change. There can be no denying that – we must change our attitudes, our campaigning style, and our strategy. We're going to have to - to use coalition business jargon - make some tough choices if we are to deliver. Our organisation has to be overhauled. In terms of personnel, we might have to change more than merely the leader. We have to recognise what has gone wrong, and the role our own failings played. This isn't just a slap in the face, but a destruction of so much we've worked for over decades. Some sense of longer-term reality among the positive fighting talk would be helpful. I'm sure there is a way forward, but it certainly requires a bit more than to dust ourselves off, say the same kinds of things and to hope the next election will be more favourable.

The General Election told us many things - but what we have to accept is that the principal message was that voters don't really like us. That the 2011 and 2015 results are so similar is not coincidental. It's going to take more than positive reinforcement of the stereotype of Lib Dem survival to turn that around.

Those of us thinking seriously about how the party can adapt to meet tomorrow's challenges may well wish to consider former MP David Howarth's advice, which I consider to represent a timely contribution:


Anonymous said...

Perhaps people underestimated the role that the Liberals played. I am guilty of that myself.

The fact that the media, mainstream and online, went with the "tuition fees in England" story, or the lack of progress on reform of the ridiculous voting system and equally idiotic House of Lords, has overshadowed the quiet background work that you did.

You only have to look at the way that the current all-Tory government is advertising its intention to rid us (possibly including Scotland) of Human Rights, cut £12 billion and more from the poor, cut taxes for the rich, and bring back (in England at least) ritual slaughter of animals by packs of hungry dogs for the amusement of toffs, to see that the Liberals did, infact, manage to hold back some of the worst excesses of the Tories.

In the coming weeks and months the "collaborator" narrative may have changed somewhat.

It's not an answer, but it may help a little in rehabilitation.

Andrew said...

Of course all that's true.

We have been a restaining influence on the Conservatives.

We've also done a lot more in government, of which we should be proud.

The "tuition fees" issue also remains misunderstood by most voters, who simply associate the Lib Dems with selling out without taking the trouble to consider the bigger picture.

I think we will be judged more fairly by history than the voters. That said, I think we have failed as a party to give people something positive to vote for; to show that we understand people and are on their side. Especially in Scotland.

Perhaps the tories are now doing us a massive favour and providing us with a significant opportunity - their determination to now, freed from coalition contraints, to implement their more radical and socially destructive policies allows us to point to what we prevented in the last parliament. It should, as you say, make rehabilitation a little easier.

But a liberal revival requires some much further-reaching changes in how we work.

Alister Rutherford said...

Very good and thoughtful post Andrew. I used to have a big soft spot for the Liberal party and then the LibDems. A strong liberal voice is always needed. But that voice has to be trusted. LibDems no longer are. When I lived in North Fife I always voted for the Liberals and then the LibDems, even though I was then a member of the Labour party. A mixture of wanting to keep the Tories out and respect for liberal values. Now I have to say that the LibDem wipe-out is a just reward for a party that betrayed its roots and its electorate. Putting party prestige and ministerial posts before the needs of the country in 2010, condemned them utterly and not just in Scotland. They were elected in 2010 primarily on an anti Tory and anti austerity platform, which had more in common with Labour. Yet within days they had sold out to the Tories and signed up as willing supporters of economic polices that have led to the worst and longest recession ever. All the talk about saving the country was based on a lie – see an excellent series by Simon Wren-Lewis for confirmation of this And in return they got a few crumbs and nothing of substance, no electoral reform, no steps towards the federalism that is supposed to be so much at the heart of the party. Thanks for the link to the David Howarth article, more good analysis. Ever thought of joining the Greens? Liberal values are intrinsic to the Greens.

Dubbieside said...


I live in North East Fife and we had delivered from the Lib Dems the most dishonest campaign leaflet that I have ever seen.

The front page had a graph showing the Lib Dems 1% point ahead of the SNP under the heading, only the Lib Dems can win here. On closer inspection in small print under the graph, figures from the 2012 Fife Council Election.

Inside writen by Campbell was piece that even the bookies found NE Fife to close to call, the SNP at 1/4 with the lLib Dems marginally!!! behind at 5/2.

The Lib Dems got exactly what they deserved in this election, for proping up the tories.

cynicalHighlander said...

Sorry Andrew but prior to the 2010 Vince was going to sort out the financial sector and zilch has happened bar some tinkering around the edges of the rampant corruption endemic in the City of London. Even Iceland jailed two of their corrupt bankers and their financial sector is minuscule compared to the UK. So like Labour your party have become Tory-lite with different frilly edges pandering to the City yet again.

Andrew said...

Alister - not really sure the Lib Dems were elected entirely on an anti-Tory platform...many English MPs owed their seats to tactical anti-Labour voting (e.g Redcar). The problem, of course, was we were perceived as being predominatly an anti-Tory party.

My own thoughts on what followed the 2010 election are on this blog - you can find them if you want them. Suffice to say I warned of dangers.

I think, however, that whatever our views on the economic situation now, the Lib Dem negotiating team genuinely believed that the economy needed a stable government in place quickly. I don't accept this - there was no downturn in the markets on the Monday morning after the election with talks ongoing, but I think the fears were real. The talk about "saving the country" might be based on what you consider a lie, but did Alexander, Laws and Clegg know this at the time?

As for joining the Greens - well, I've thought about it. There are liberals within the Green Party, accepted.

Dubbieside - misleading bar charts on a Lib Dem leaflet - never!!!! (Personally I can't stand them, but almost every party uses them now...)

Andrew said...

CynicalHighlander - you are aware that Vince's responsibility for overseeing that was removed from him after making some comments on a "nuclear option" to some undercover journalists?

cynicalHighlander said...

Which shows a complete lack of integrity on Vince's part I have been made redundant in the past for not compromising my integrity and expect elected politicians to do the same.

Anonymous said...

While admiring your honesty, I note the absence of one of the Liberals forgotten aims - Federalism. Throughout my youth, the Liberals as they were then, had that word attached to them. As an SNP supporter they were seen as the party closest to us. No longer, the unionism spouted by the useless Rennie and the dismissive comments from LibDem head office in London killed any chance of a LibDem vote in Scotland. Jo Grimond would be ashamed of you. I hope you learn from all this and return as a credible option in Scottish politics.

Brus said...

I live in Edinburgh West and have voted for Donald Gorrie, Margaret Smith, Mike Crochart and his predecessor who had his fingers in the till (Allegedly). Margaret was a good MSP. Happy enough to vote liberal to keep Lord Douglas James Hamilton in the first instance and kept going. BUT after going into coalition with the Tories hell will freeze over before I'd even consider voting Liberal.
Your demise in Scotland has nothing to do with policy or message or how you got it across, it's because you whored yourself out to the Tories not once but twice. Labour has suffered for just once.
You are perhaps like Danny Alexander or Ruth Davidson, so young that you think Scotland has always been a deindustrialised wasteland. For us older folk we don't forget or forget it was the Tories that did it. Never forgotten or forgiven and that's what did you in, the Tories are that toxic.
On a slightly different note Willie Dennis says 2,000 people have joined the liberals in the past 24 hours. I don't believe word he says but that's really stretching credibility.

Alister Rutherford said...

If Alexander, Laws and Clegg did not know about the real position of the UK economy in 2010 and the non existence of any threat, then they should not be in politics. Certainly not leading what they claim is a serious and major party. We expect nothing better of the Tories, but ignorance is never an excuse.

Andrew said...

Brus - in fact, over 7,000 have joined the Lib Dems since Friday.

All this is verified - and it's good news for the party.

However, it shouldn't distract from the wider problems we have. And, of course, how many of those are former members who wouldn't re-join until after Clegg had gone? I'd guess quite a few.

I'd be interested in seeing a breakdown of where the new members are joining from, and specifically how many are in Scotland.

Anonymous - I didn't mention federalism in this piece - but my blog is littered with references to it - as I've said many times if it was a crime to be a federalist party I'm not sure there would be enough evidence with which to convict us.

Alister - it's easy to look back with hindsight and say that the economic fears were "a lie". But did anyone know that at the time? The fears were genuine - I don't doubt that. The prevailing logic was that markets don't like uncertainty and that the economic situation was worse than previously imagined - very few argued against that in 2010.

For me, the negotiating team are more at fault for the naive way in which they took the Tories at face value.

Andrew said...

CynicalHighlander - my view of Vince's unfortunate intervention in 2010:

Brus said...

Well 7,000 will bring the Uk wide liberals up to hald the size of the Scotland only SNP.
But I'm more interested why you avoided the question of how Tory Toxicity has destroyed the liberal party in Scotland. In the last three set of elections, Council, Holyrood and Westminister you are on a trajectory that suggests extinction. Any thoughts?

Andrew said...

Brus - I'm not getting carried away with all the talk of a liberal fightback. I heard all that back in 2011, and we appear not to have learned the lessons from that disaster. The new members are, of course, very welcome - but rebuilding is going to be a massive undertaking.

I'm not sure I really have avoided the question of Tory toxicity. In the last few years I've referred to it quite frequently. Even in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election, I insisted that a Lib Dem - Tory coalition would have a negative impact on the party's standing in Scotland. However, I don't think that alone accounts for our difficulties, even if it's hightened the scale of them - we've also failed on other fronts too.

I didn't focus on Scotland so much in this piece because, as explained, I expected the result here for reasons outlined in previous postings

Andrew said...

Something I wrote after the 2010 election result had been announced:

"From a purely Scottish perspective, identifying ourselves with a Conservative Party which has virtually no electoral base and remains widely mistrusted could prove to be an electoral liability. The old questions of the Tories’ electoral legitimacy in Scotland and the perceived “democrat deficit” may re-emerge with potential to damage the Scottish Liberal Democrats."

Anonymous said...


Excellent blog, thank you. I am a member of the SNP but have always considered myself to be a Liberal Democrat without a home. The reason for this has been the failure of the LD Party to actually fight for Federalism in the UK leaving myself, and I suspect many others, with little choice but to join the SNP and fight for independence.

I feel that the Liberal Democrats were pretty much played by the Conservatives overall, as Labour were also. If bad news had to be announced you were pretty much guaranteed that smiling Danny Alexander would be the one to do it. He is no loss to your party in any shape or form. I actually thought Michael Moore was the best in Scotland to be honest, a decent man I thought.

The election campaign was a disaster for the Liberals, again Danny and his yellow box was a shocker and the tactical voting or vote for us cause we're not as bad as them failed to define exactly what the Liberal Democrats were for. In Scotland the continued announcement that Smith was modern Federalism did not resonate well with people, and even many Liberals that I know.

The Liberal message of equality and equal opportunity is a just one. The message of fairness,of caring for the most vulnerable, while asking those with the most to take on the duty they have as humans to care for the those with the least are vital and important Liberal messages, but somehow the party has allowed those to be lost within a slightly less nasty neo con centre politics that will not be the saviour of the Liberal movement.

I suspect that this set back might well be the very thing that saves the party in the long run. I am unconvinced by Tim Farron to be honest but time will tell. Losing Cable and Kennedy etc may well be the start of the re-building of the party with hopefully the members taking more control over it's direction. I actually have a choice to make soon regarding my membership of the SNP and so do want to ' come home' to the Liberal Party but remain unconvinced that the Liberal movement is the movement that it can be. However, the party does need to recover as it has a role to play in building a new and better Scotland, I really believe that. I also believe in strong opposition as no opposition is not good for the SNP or the country.


Bruce (grumpyscottishman)

Andrew said...

Well, Bruce (grumpyscottishman)...

I am in a similar position to yourself in some respects. I, too, have been frustrated by the lack of real progress on federalism and opted to support independence - although from within the Lib Dems, which may seem odd to some.

I agree that we have been "played" effectively by the Conservatives. Oddly, they seemed better prepared for coalition that we were. I was not Danny's biggest fan, although too often he found himself in impossible positions; Michael Moore was an excellent MP, a decent man and Parliament is worse for not having him there. We lost some very good MPs but if there was one Scottish MP I am gutted to lose it's him.

The Yellow Box...the elss said about that the better. As for the Smith proposals, for me they represent the starting point of a political conversation that must surely conclude with a UK Constitutional Convention to consider federalist options. To suggest the Smith plan is anything more is disingenuous.

There are plenty of reasons that the campaign was inadequate - I hope in all teh talk of a "Liberal fightback" we don't lose sight of those failings. We needed to give people something to vote for, and "stronger economy and fairer society" wasn't it. The messges needed to be more personal, targetted to the needs of potential voters.

I'm not (yet) convinced by Tim Farron, but I see his appeal and I agree that if we can seize the opportunities we can provide the strong opposition the SNP needs. We have a definite opportunity in Scotland as well with Labour's current predicament.

We need people with your insights and understandings in our party - I for one hope we can reach out to many who voted Yes last September - but hope that whatever you decide you will retain your involvement in politics.

Thanks for your thoughtful and considered comments.

Anonymous said...


Took the plunge and cancelled SNP membership and joined Liberal Democrats. Reading your blog helped and I actually feel more comfortable in my politics now that I have. Will always be a yes voter as long as federalism is not on the table but been assured those views are fine within the party.


John Barrett said...

There are many lessons we can learn from the recent election result and others we should have learned from the equally disastrous results every year since 2010. Sadly those who questioned the wisdom of the leadership, or direction of the party, were dismissed be many in the bubble at Westminster or other Clegg loyalists.

Looking forward, there is one longer term opportunity; to develop a distinct Liberal response to an issue heading our way (sooner or later)and that is to develop a distinctive alternative approach to any referendum on independence.

We should not join in any Labour led "Better Together mark 2" and instead we should push for any question asked in the next referendum to offer the Federal option - instead of just Yes or No to independence. This would appeal to those in the party like me, who voted Yes last year and would give a real choice to many in the Lib-Dems who must feel like vegetarians, who when given a choice between beef and pork, know that this is no choice at all.

I have spoken to a number of Lib-Dem Yes voters who,like me, know there is an alternative way forward for the party in Scotland. To gain any momentum it will require the support of other groups and organisations outside any political parties. If there are others who share this view, I would be happy to hear from them at

Iain Ross said...


"Will always be a yes voter as long as federalism is not on the table" and then you join the Lib Dems!! How can a Yes voter join a Unionist organ? They claim that they believe in Federalism but what have they managed to come up with in 100 years, the Smith Commission?? Don't make me laugh, they are not interested in Federalism that is just a paper promise. If the Lib Dems believe in Federalism then they would have done the decent thing and worked with the SNP to have that put on the referendum ballot. Of course they didn't do that did they? As always actions speak louder than words.

By the way what are the Lib Dems actually for? Instead of all this talk about strategy and tactics where are the actual policies? What is it you people can offer me? The Lib Dems come across as just another bit of the British Establishment constantly carping Unionist dribble about how crap Scotland and the SNP are. Due to your own actions I now see the Lib Dems as meally mouthed soft Tories quite prepared to do anything to get a sniff of power or a ministerial brief.

The SNP are flawed to be sure but at least their message is clear and I know that they have the interests of my country at heart. Given the voting system which is beloved of all the Unionists (reform of which appears to be another Lib Dem fake promise) voting SNP is a no brainer.

By the way the latest carry own with Carmichael just reinforces the idea that the Lib Dems have no integrity and are finished. Willie Rennie has a track record of calling for every man and his dog to resign recently but where is he now? Is he going to call out a man who not only leaked known incorrect information which caused a diplomatic incident but then lied about doing it, on public record? Is going to discipline an individual who have caused thousands of pounds of taxpayers money to be wasted on an inquiry? No I do not think so either and what about the constituents of Orkney and Shetland and their right to have open and honest representation? Lib Dems and Liberal principles, aye right.....

Andrew said...

How can a Yes voter join a Unionist organ?

Erm, I was a Liberal Democrat member a long time before I was a Yes voter!

If you're asking why I remained within the party and maintained this stance, I invite you to look at my previous blogposts.

As I'm not a nationalist, and never could be, I do not wish to join something that defines itself as a "National" party. I'm a liberal.

As for Alistair Carmichael, please do not assume my inability to find the time to write a blogpost means I have no views, or that I accept the party position.