Last Thursday at 10pm, we all got a shock.
He may well have been right. It was certainly surprising, and yet despite the plaudits handed to BBC psephologist John Curtice, it turned out to be the most inaccurate exit poll since 1992. Just as on that occasion, the poll correctly predicted the unexpected direction of travel, away from other opinion polls and towards the Tories, but fell some way short in terms of the distance travelled.
316 seats for the Tories was a big surprise; 58 for the SNP was shocking if not entirely surprising. But for me, the real eyeballs moment was when the BBC, who didn’t start with Sky’s all-encompassing graphic, revealed a few seconds later, the extent of the LibDem collapse.
Just 10 seats? How was that possible? Even the most pessimistic polling in the last week of the election put them on 17, and that was considered an outlier. High 20s was the average prediction and YouGov’s own exit poll put them on 31.
But hours later, it was clear that the extent of the LibDem disaster, just like that of the Tory triumph, had in fact been slightly under-stated.
In the week that’s passed since, something has become very clear from analysing the pattern of results, together with anecdotal evidence from LibDem campaigners in the south of England in particular. The LibDems lost almost as many seats as a result of the Tories’ “stop the SNP” scare tactic, as they did through the coalition backlash.
The backlash saw left-sided voters deserting the LibDems in disgust at Nick Clegg helping David Cameron into Downing Street. It was fully expected, if in my view undeserved, as I explained in this video last year.
Nobody expected their vote share to be much more than half of the 23% they achieved in 2010. But I, and many others, still thought they’d hold on to 30-odd seats.
This was partly because their ground operation (on which they concentrated most of their funding) was known to be effective in seats where they were incumbent; but mainly because in 38 of their 57 seats, it was the Tories, rather than Labour, who finished 2nd in 2010.
That Labour, even on such a bad day for them, gained 16 out of the 17 seats where they were 2nd to the LibDems last time, was no surprise. It was likely, too, that LibDem votes seeping to Labour or the Greens, would cost them a handful of seats to the Tories, in marginals where the tactical vote wouldn’t be enough to save them.
What nobody predicted was that LibDem voters would defect en masse, directly to the Tories. After all, that hardly seemed a credible punishment for the electorate to inflict upon Nick Clegg’s party, for joining the Tories in Government.
As the dust settled, it quickly became apparent, from LibDem campaigners, that the Tory advance against them had little do to with the coalition. As their Maidstone candidate Jasper Gerard (whose Tory opponent Helen Grant was described by the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman as ‘toast’ the day before the election) explains here, it was the effect of David Cameron’s hugely successful scare tactic which dominated the latter days of the campaign:
I mentioned this in my blog on Tuesday, which looked at David Cameron’s victory and concluded that Scotland was largely the reason for it, since it was the SNP surge in Scotland, and polls giving advance warning of this, which allowed the Tories to play the SNP card, which in turn held back the expected Labour gains from them and allowed the Tories to decapitate the LibDem vote in the South West, winning 32 of the 38 seats in which they finished 2nd last time.
I always thought Paddy Ashdown and the LibDem campaign should have used different tactics, and stopped trying to persuade the electorate of the good they had done in Government. The public never bought it. I think it was Albert Einstein who once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”; the LibDems had been singing the same song for three years and seen no change in the opinion polls. It was never going to work.
However, considering the event, one wonders if there’s anything Paddy Ashdown, Olly Grender and the team could possibly have done. Nobody could have expected the indirect effect that the SNP surge would have on the LibDems. Any campaign which attempted to limit the coalition backlash – as they surely had to – would have been blind-sided, because it wasn’t their decision to go into coalition, which cost the LibDems all those Tory seats.
Or was it?
I would argue, on further reflection, that the coalition backlash probably was a big factor in the LibDems losing all those seats in the South West after all. For two reasons:
Firstly, the reason the Tory scare campaign worked, was because a Labour/SNP government was a perfectly genuine possibility. With so many of their seats obviously falling to the SNP, it was clear that Labour were never going to get more than 280 or so, unless they made a massive breakthrough and won a near-landslide in England & Wales on polling day, which nobody thought likely. However much Ed wriggled, he couldn’t escape the numbers. To get to no. 10, he would need the SNP.
But he wouldn’t have done, if the LibDems had been on course to keep their 57 seats, or anything close to that number; in those circumstances a Lib/Lab deal would have been possible. But of course, the LibDems were never going to keep all those seats, because of the coalition backlash.
And there’s another, more interesting point which was made by a writer friend of mine, Alan Barnes, after he read my earlier blog on my Facebook page:
The SNP surge was an indirect consequence of the Independence Referendum. The Referendum only happened because the SNP gained a Holyrood majority in the 2011 Scottish election. One of the major factors behind the SNP Holyrood landslide was the collapse of the LibDems. While Labour made losses too, the SNP victory came primarily at the expense of the LibDems, and was a direct consequence of their support for the Tories in Westminster.
Alan & I are both Doctor Who geeks (old school of course) and when pointing this out, he reminded me of a quote from former Time Lord Sylvester McCoy, in one of his more successful episodes:
That line was written by Ben Aaronovitch, brother of Times columnist David. But maybe what the world’s most famous time-traveller was really talking about, was this year’s General Election.