Fraser Nelson’s must-read guide to utterly and completely misunderstanding the Lib Dems’ Coalition strategy

Fraser Nelson has written a must-read guide to utterly and completely misunderstanding the Lib Dems’ Coalition strategy today. My guess is he’s reliant on Tory intelligence, which in this case is an oxymoron.

Much of it is the usual half-fair/half-unfair admixture of insults regularly thrown at the Lib Dems by the right-wing media. We are, says Fraser, “a hodge-podge of a party defined by its lack of definition”, “conservative in Somerset and socialist in Solihull” (has he met Lorely Burt?). Unlike the Conservatives, of course, where the small-l-liberal outlook of Ken Clarke and Nick Boles dovetails perfectly with the right-wing nuttiness of Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone. All major political parties are inevitably broad churches, and this is no more and and no less true of the Lib Dems. You’ll usually find me on the economic liberal wing of the Lib Dems, while my co-editor Caron Lindsay is more comfortable on the social liberal wing. But I’d much rather disagree with Tim Farron on economic policy (as Caron might with David Laws).

Fraser Nelson’s piece is prompted by three mini-rows within the Coalition this week.

In the first, between Michael Gove and David Laws over education policy, my sympathies are entirely with the Lib Dem schools minister in wanting to avoid Ofsted becoming politicised and in wanting academy groups to be as accountable as local authorities. In the second, Danny Alexander’s “over my dead body” blocking of a cut in the 45p top-rate of tax, Fraser is right that the language was hyperbolic – as I noted here. And in the third, the Lib Dems blocking the Tories from more draconian capping of Council Tax rises, Fraser ignores the fact that Eric Pickles was (rightly) thwarted by a coalition of Lib Dem ministers and Tory council leaders who reckon local government is already too centralised.

I cannot see the pattern here that Fraser feigns to see to make his central point – that the Lib Dems are basically just a bunch of lefties. And it’s here he exposes his utter and complete misunderstanding the Lib Dems’ Coalition strategy, as overseen by Nick Clegg’s top advisor Ryan Coetzee. Here’s how Fraser caricatures it:

[Coetzee’s] research shows that Clegg’s best chance lies in wooing the people he had given up on: the Left-wingers, who are now called the “switch-backers”. They dislike Conservatives in general, and Michael Gove in particular – so, runs his logic, Clegg’s best chance of holding on to his 55 MPs is to attack his partners.

He is wrong. Here’s how I’ve described Ryan Coetzee’s assessment, based on the party’s first ever extensive private polling:

The party has a fairly solid base of 10% of the electorate. A further 15% would consider voting for us, pretty evenly split between those who are currently Conservative or Labour voters, or who are undecided. If we can persuade half of those considerers to vote Lib Dem in 2015, the party will likely hold the balance of power once again. Call it our 17.5% strategy, if you like (the optimistic end of the party’s share-of-the-vote forecast for 2015).

To repeat: the Lib Dems message is intended to appeal to persuadable Conservatives just as much as it’s intended to appeal to persuadable Labour supporters just as much as it’s intended to appeal to persuadable voters who are currently undecided – ie, the 15% of centrist, small-l-liberal voters who are generally pro-European and pro-renewables and, yes, who aren’t such fans of Michael Gove, fearing he’s putting ideology ahead of what’s best for schools.

In fact, they’re exactly the same audience a mainstream Conservative party which genuinely wanted to win a majority in 2015 would also be trying to target. It says a lot about the state of the modern Tories that folk like Fraser are happy to ignore those moderate voters in the progressive centre, and casually dismiss them as ‘left-wingers’.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Paul Pettinger 7th Feb '14 - 2:49pm

    When are the Lib Dems going to start persuading anyone? The Party’s poll ratings are *below* what some would describe as its core vote. When is the upturn in the economy going to trigger the hordes of voters wanting to thank us for what we have done (follow another Party’s economic policy)? If Clegg could do everything again he may do some things differently, and I think his team is much better than in 2010. But he was inexperienced, out of touch and has ballsed it up. The chances of being King makers with 40 MPs, rather than 30, are much greater. We need a fresh start before May 2015,

  • Frank Booth 7th Feb '14 - 4:28pm

    What is this ‘progressive centre’. I’d have thought the point about the centre is that it is neither progressive or traditionalist. If you take the view that the possible Lib Dem vote is 25% of the electorate that means the 2010 vote was pretty much the Lib Dem ceiling.

    I voted Lib Dem in 2010 because I thought the party had long term ambition to get 30%, maybe 35% of the vote and with electoral reform possibly be able to lead a government of its own. It turns out the party is only for the fringe of the electorate particularly concerned with Europe and the environment. Noble enough but ultimately such a strategy will only ever make the Lib Dems a minor party that might hope for a hung parliament and then be the bag carriers for Labour or the Tories. The Party seems rather elitist and it would be far too much hassle to appeal all those voters with their silly ideas, so let’s just appeal to 15% and hope for a hung parliament?

  • Tony Dawson 7th Feb '14 - 7:30pm

    “Strategy”??? How can one ‘misunderstand’ something which is non-existent?

    Fraser Nelson misunderstands thetactics of the Lib Dem HQ just as Ryan Coetze misundertands the UK electorate – particularly the bit which votes in Lib Dem MPs. We do not have ’10 per cent ‘who support us nationally. Our core support is massively different (factor of 2 to 4) in adjoining constituencies with virtually identical demographics. The difference is the variation of levels of trust in the local Lib Dem teams, the local Lib Dem work rate and a number of other very local factors. To do any kind of analysis of Lib Dem electoral prospects based upon trying to average out the support levels in these different places is little short of ludicrous.

  • So, “To repeat:” our strategy is to appeal try and appeal to everyone by appealing to no-one. Great to know… 🙁

  • So do you put your relative local success down to being “to the right of” the local Tories, Simon?

  • Quite right, Stephen. The idea that to win Solihull you need to go socialist just shows how nonsensical the article is.

  • @ Paul Pettinger

    “We need a fresh start before May 2015”

    I trust that means you are putting yourself up as a leadership challenger to Nick Clegg or have someone vaguely credible in mind to take on the task?

    If not, I think your point is null and void.

  • “I trust that means you are putting yourself up as a leadership challenger to Nick Clegg or have someone vaguely credible in mind to take on the task?”

    If there is really no one else in the party capable of leading it – let alone leading it better than Clegg – I think you all may as well give up and spend your time on something more worthwhile.

    It was surely a bad enough indication last time around, when the consensus was that the only candidates worth considering were N. Clegg and C. Huhne.

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