Introducing the General Election 2017 Election Review

After the 2015 election disaster, a comprehensive post mortem led by James Gurling analysed what had gone wrong and made a huge number of detailed recommendations of what should be done differently next time.

However, the snap election of 2017, coming just two years later and out of left field, meant that we were still recovering from 2015 and had not had much chance to implement many of those changes.

Another disappointing result demanded further analysis, although a snap election was a very different challenge. So the Federal Board concluded that a review should be relatively ‘quick and dirty’ and sit alongside the 2015 review in informing future decisions.

Finding someone completely uninvolved in the election to lead the review proved an impossible task, and in the end Gerald Vernon-Jackson failed to dodge the bullet and was appointed just after the Bournemouth conference. Three months having already elapsed since polling day, Gerald was asked to produce something fast. He mustered a strong team and over a long weekend of intensive work they interviewed some 58 stakeholders from across the party.

Their report was produced quickly off the back of that evidence-taking and serves as a candid appraisal of the snap election campaign. It was formally received by the Federal Board and sent to the Federal Campaigns and Elections Committee and Federal Audit and Scrutiny Committee to inform ‘lessons learned’ exercises.

Some eyebrows were raised at the anecdotal character of the report, but in fairness to Gerald and his team it was exactly what it said on the tin: a coherent synopsis of the perceptions of 58 stakeholders and the panel itself, drawing together the common threads from the accounts they heard. It does not purport to be a comprehensive analysis of the sort conducted after 2015, and was always designed to sit alongside the earlier report in providing a route map for future campaigns.

The Federal Board is today publishing an executive summary of the report, conveying its principal findings – both positive and negative – and its recommendations for the future. The full report has been circulated to party committees, but is not suitable for general publication and inevitable perusal by our opponents.

The party is greatly indebted to Gerald and his team for responding so positively to the challenge of reviewing the campaign quickly and providing so many constructive and worthwhile ideas for the future.

* Sir Nick Harvey was the Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon from 1992 until 2015 and Minister of State for the Armed Forces from 2010 to 2012

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  • Ruth Bright 10th Aug '18 - 5:07pm

    Love the way 2015 is now officially “a disaster”. The post-mortem at conference was quite bewilderingly cheerful at times and full of training/consultancy speak telling us that there were merely “some learning points” to “take forward”!

  • 2015 was always going to be a disaster (or “very challenging”, to give its official title), in the circumstances of coming out of coalition. For 2017 there should be fewer excuses, yet actually I think the campaign was worse.

  • David Evans 10th Aug '18 - 6:09pm

    Sadly, yet another piece of business speak to cover up the fact that the inevitable consequences of what our leaders and MPs did in coalition are still coming home to roost. Whether we have the ability or the willingness to recover from the near suicide of coalition will depend upon whether we are prepared to face up to the mistakes every one of us made in that time, or whether we prefer to go on pretending it was all inevitable and we did nothing wrong, while the party continues to go down the toilet.

    In 2014, I remember being told by a leading light that I was wrong to raise concerns and that “the strategy we are following is the best strategy we could follow to deliver the optimum result in our present circumstances at the next election,” so we didn’t need to change anything of substance.

    Well three years later were are still at 10% at best in the polls, our only unique policy (other than the disaster that was cannabis) will cease to be relevant in seven months time and still we produce this exercise in self-delusion.

    I’m sorry Nick, but until the awkward squad are listened to, the party will continue to decline and it will be no-one’s fault but you and the people you surround yourself with.

  • paul barker 10th Aug '18 - 6:33pm

    I will be reading the summary later but the overwhelming impression I had at the time was that both Voters & Media were treating the 2017 Election as a Presidential race or a single, giant Byelection. The assumption from the off was that no-one except Labour & Tories mattered. All the “Minor ” Parties were crushed in a “2 Party Squeeze” & our Poll ratings began dropping from the moment The Election was called. We still havent fully recovered from that hit.
    That we managed to get more MPs struck me as near miraculous at the time, obviously our National Targetting got something right.

  • Liberal Neil 10th Aug '18 - 6:34pm

    @Ruth Bright – as one of the authors of the 2015 campaign it is fair to say we had a lot of very serious criticisms of how it was run. I don’t think we looked at it quite as simplistically as saying it was ‘a disaster’.

  • It’s a poor, incoherent summary and clearly reliant on hearsay.

  • Martin Land 10th Aug '18 - 7:59pm

    I’m curious about the decision not to publish. What did we do which might be of the slightest interest to our opponents? I think it unlikely that they would be queuing up to imitate us!

  • Mark Blackburn 10th Aug '18 - 9:05pm

    Liberal Neil, it’s not Ruth Bright calling 2015 a disaster, it’s Nick Harvey in his introduction. And it was a disaster, although saying such a thing at the time was regarded as treasonous – “it wasn’t our fault, it was the sacrificial price we paid for nobly being in coalition’. We WERE so much the architects of our own downfall, for our pious failure to accept responsibility for our own failings – the contribution to austerity economics, tuition fees etc. Before we can continue into double figures we need to admit our faults and distance ourselves from the Tory-leaning leadership of the Coalition years.

  • The 2017 election result was disappointing and many of the recommendations in this report should be taken up by the party. Looking at the polling before the “squeeze” on us, UKIP and the Greens it shows that the Conservatives would have had a huge majority. Putting the figures into a swingometer shows the squeeze cost us 6 seats but deprived the Conservatives of their majority. With a slight possibility of a snap election, as the Tories tear themselves apart, we must be ready with candidates and clear guidance of where to target.

  • It’s not how the election was run – it’s what the party did and what the party had become when it was in government.

    Rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic comes to mind.

  • The immediate point that struck me on first reading of the 2017 Review was the very pertinent point that our prime message (opposing Brexit) pleased Members but failed completely to resonate with voters. Still seems to be true in 2018.

  • Farrell-Vinay Peter 10th Aug '18 - 11:26pm

    We need:

    • An Alastair Campbell to tell us unpleasant truths about how we’re percieved.
    • A mechanism to cope with major developments.
    • All our web sites testing to eliminate goofs such as asking new members for money before even explaining ourselves.
    • All feedback routes for the press and public testing to ensure a timely turnaround.
    • “Difficult” questions we may be posed, researched and model answers prepared

  • Peter Farrell-Vinay 10th Aug '18 - 11:29pm

    We need
    • An Alastair Campbell to tell us unpleasant truths about how we’re percieved.
    • Ao mechanism to cope with major developments during campaigns.
    • All our web sites testing to eliminate goofs such as asking new members for money before even explaining ourselves.
    • All feedback routes for the press and public testing to ensure a timely turnaround.
    • “Difficult” questions we may be posed researched and model answers prepared.


    We are at our best when we “march towards the sound of gunfire!” As politicians we tend to witter on about the advantages of land value tax in securing more economically efficient use of resources – worthy and important but switching off 99.99% of the electorate.

    An allied example is that technology companies can market their computers on their technical performance – say “has having the latest six-core processor that offers greater MIPS performance”. One of the things that Steve Jobs did when he went back to Apple was ditch all of that completely and introduce their “think different” campaign.

    After seeing that on youtube I was thinking how you might apply that to the Lib Dems. My five minutes of thought had a “Value Education” campaign with ads of people talking about inspiring teachers they have had – no policies or politicians. But backed by clear bold policies:
    1. No university tuition fees
    2. Double the pupil premium
    3. Free school meals for all primary and secondary school pupils
    4. Real increase in schools budget
    5. Real increase in teachers’ salaries
    6. 70% of young people to university in 13 years time – i.e. when today’s five-year olds are 18.
    7. Lifelong learning fund for all.

  • Genuinely shocked that it has become a canard that the cannabis policy was a “disaster”. It was perceived very positively by most voters I encountered. It was a simple message that is a solid liberal principle and cut through media ignoring us – which is what we ought to be going for, surely?

    How often do we have a policy that’s solidly liberal AND that research shows a majority of the public support?

    Other than that I am broadly in agreement with Peter Farrell-Vinay, above. Sadly, though, all the things he recommends cost money and HQ appear not to have very much of that for various reasons, so I expect we’ll keep on blundering along the way we have since 2015, trying to rely on too few staff to do way too much work and praying volunteers will plug the gaping holes (which they won’t), for a while longer yet…

  • Michael 1 10th Aug ’18 – 11:55pm…… backed by clear bold policies:
    1. No university tuition fees
    2. Double the pupil premium
    3. Free school meals for all primary and secondary school pupils
    4. Real increase in schools budget
    5. Real increase in teachers’ salaries
    6. 70% of young people to university in 13 years time – i.e. when today’s five-year olds are 18.
    7. Lifelong learning fund for all…………………………..

    One ‘easy’ doorstep question, “How will you pay for that?”

    All those ‘goodies’ without a mention of housing, social care, NHS, welfare, etc. When Corbyn promised around half of your list we ‘rubbished’ him for uncosted promises.

  • John Marriott 11th Aug '18 - 9:16am

    For a start, a Liberal orientated Party should not expect to get much more than 10% of the popular vote, if the example of democratic (largely PR voting) Europe is anything to go by. What FPTP, ironically, can sometimes do is to throw up the odd ‘win’ if there is a strong candidate and well organised local team with a history of success in local elections. I guess that happened in 2017. Mind you, if the Lib Dems had got 7% of the Parliamentary seats (42?) and other smaller parties had got their fair share, INCLUDING UKIP, the post election House of Commons might have looked very different. But we’ve ‘done’ PR, haven’t we? Thanks Nick and co!

    In a modern General Election, you need a Leader who has not only got ‘street cred’ but a certain gravitas. Tim Farron tried to cultivate the former but failed miserably on the latter. Having albeit seriously held views on certain matters proved to be meat and drink to the media, which tends to look for faults and weaknesses, which it can exaggerate. As far as the future is concerned, I’m afraid that Vince Cable might be the reverse image of Mr Farron. Ballroom dancing might appeal to the oldies; but it surely won’t cut the mustard with anyone else.

    Let’s face it. General Elections are basically won in the media, not at the hustings and certainly not on the doorstep. Get it wrong on the telly and you’re DOOOOMED. The British public loves a ‘new kid on the block’ (look at Blair in ‘97 or Gleggmania in ‘10). Corbyn fulfilled a similar role last time. Also, English voters tend at national level to prefer a binary choice (notice that I don’t include the other U.K. nations). Most do not understand ‘coalitions’ (quote from 2010 “we didn’t vote for this” answer “of course you didn’t; but nobody got a majority, so let’s try to form a government that technically has the support of over 50% of those who voted last time”). They might need a lot of educating. However, most so called democratic countries seem to manage perfectly well. Why not the Brits? Or are we just a bit different?

  • Jennie – “Genuinely shocked that it has become a canard that the cannabis policy was a “disaster”.”

    Every election has seen ‘the party’ blame a particular policy for ‘the defeat’. In 2005 it was Local Income Tax/raising taxes, in 2010 it was immigration, in 2015 it was, well everything 🙂 and 2017 legalising cannabis.

    Basically that route leads to the conclustion of scrapping any policy that might be unpopular with some voters – which would beg the question – what’s the point in the Lib Dems. (A question I personally currently answer, there isn’t one).

  • Michael Romberg 11th Aug '18 - 12:17pm

    The summary includes recommendation “(20) The party’s campaigning needs must take priority over policy preoccupations” under policy, apparently in response to our policy on cannabis not resonating everywhere.

    There is obviously no point in campaigning on a manifesto that is universally rejected.

    However, an abiding sin of the party is to offer a collection of popular policies and objections to unpopular policies without policy coherence. A manifesto based on what sells to focus groups is not worth defending, and the government that tried to implement it would underpreform.

    Rejection of tuition fees was a good example. A popular policy, but one that contradicted our policies on encouraging social mobility and calling for redistribution from rich to poor.

    If we stand for policies derived from principles, then we will have a logically coherent set of policies that support each other. People who consider individual policies in isolation will reject some of them. But we can defend the package.

    One of our principles should be individual freedom so long as you do not harm others. That would include decriminalising drugs. Let’s stick to our principles and improve the quality of our campaigning.

  • The ‘defeat’ of 2005? The election where we took 22% of the vote and 62 MP’s?

    Not only our highest number of MP’s in almost a century but unfortunately all too likely to remain so for a very very long time to come. I wish we had more defeats like 2005.

  • Graham Jeffs 11th Aug '18 - 12:45pm

    We say “Vote for the Liberal Democrats”

    The public say:

    a) “Why”
    b) “What’s in it for me?”

    We may not like the attitude in b) but we certainly need a very short, compelling message to answer a) which can be used in a campaigning context.

    It’s a matter of perception, irrespective of policies (important as they are). The electorate invariably vote to defeat ‘the other lot’. Yes, it’s negative – but unless we can craft a succinct positive message to counter that we are not going to gain traction.

  • OnceALibDem 11th Aug '18 - 1:01pm

    ‘defeat’ was in quotes deliberately. There was plenty of (IMO ill-informed) commentary after 2005 about how the party could have done better. For which plans for increasing taxes took the blame (leading to the tax cut agenda of 2010-15 which left the NHS underfunded so that party now returns to a tax increasing agenda). Which was of course opposed by Paul but supported by Vince and Tim.

    My point was that after every recent election some people have had a simplistic explanation that all it needed was to scrap unpopular policy X

  • “Vote for the Liberal Democrats”

    The public say:

    a) “Why”
    b) “What’s in it for me?

    a) Liberty and economic security.
    b) Improve your standard of living and well-being of British society.

  • @expats “One ‘easy’ doorstep question, “How will you pay for that?””

    in round terms I would estimate the cost to be £20 billion out of a total Government budget of £800 billion or about 2.5%.

    There are a number of answers. The first of course is that we can’t actually afford NOT to. The ONLY way we will earn our living in the world and increase our GDP to pay for all the other nice things is by being highly skilled and educated. Competing with the likes of South Korea which sends 70% of its 18 year-olds to university today.

    The second answer is I am relaxed about borrowing for it. £7.5 billion for tuition fees we already borrow – just individually rather than collectively. We have rightly advocated borrowing for a physical infrastructure fund. Even more important than a physical infrastructure fund is a human infrastructure fund – the skills of our people.

    Thirdly SOME things might be less well funded. Limit defence to inflation rather than GDP growth and drop rather few bombs on countries such as Iraq.

    Finally we could raise taxes – something we have not been afraid of – the famous 1p on tax.

    Now – all these points will bring us under attack. They will not be popular among everyone. That is the whole point. We value education and so are prepared to fight for it and argue the case for it.

    There are of course a whole raft of policies that people are concerned about. And I am not advocating abandoning policies on them. But people short term people can remember three things.Professional marketeers of commercial products spend fortunes repeating a simply expressed USP. “Think Different”. “Every little helps” etc. etc.

    We have a minuscule “marketing budget” and opportunities such as party political broadcasts and the leader’s speech. We could use them to mention tens of worthy policies. We have done that. I would challenge you to mention anything memorable from the past four decades of hours of Lib Dem leaders’ speeches or party political broadcasts. Actually there probably is one. And that’s is John Cleese’s PPB on PR. It was on one subject and it was different. Unfortunately it was on the wrong subject about which 0.01% of people care deeply about.

  • I’ve just read the exec summary, which looks to me like a solid piece of work. I think it covers all the right issues. The test now will be how it is implemented, which aspects are prioritised etc.
    But, as an ordinary member who wants to see the party succeed, I want to say Thankyou to Gerald V-J and the others involved in putting it together. Having been involved in making such reports in the past, it’s a thankless task: a lot of hard (unpaid) work and instant criticism guaranteed – as we are seeing on here. The party is fortunate to have top quality people who are willing to do this kind of work. We should appreciate them and thank them occasionally.

  • Graham Jeffs 11th Aug '18 - 4:23pm

    JoeB – I agree with your sentiments, but currently are anything but a smallish minority actually motivated by the answers you provide? I fear not – my perception is that people are becoming increasingly obsessed with self rather than the wider needs of society.

    If I am correct, how do we counter that?

  • Katharine Pindar 11th Aug '18 - 6:13pm

    How could the successes of 2005 be reproduced? Any ideas, anyone?

  • John Marriott 11th Aug '18 - 6:34pm

    @Katharine Pindar
    What was the world like back in 2005? No Brexit, booming economy, Dubya/Blair lovefest, IDS/ Howard distraction, Iraq War….some former supporters becoming disillusioned with New Labour and, in a pre UKIP age, looking for a non Tory alternative. Along comes a Scotsman with a sense of humour the courage of his convictions, leading a party that appears to have a conscience. Happy days?

  • Actually, Tony H, I am sure Gerald and the others involved have often been thanked – I am sure I have heard it being done before! However, in this case, had I been asked, I am sure I could have predicted quite accurately what this report would have said – which reflects clearly GV-J’s thinking in general terms. Many of us will have heard his pep talks, and general campaign briefings in the past – certainly that will apply to many at HQ and in the higher echelons of the party. It may be that the full report contains some rather more revealing content, and I shall listen out for a chance to hear that content!

  • Mark Smulian 12th Aug '18 - 10:34am

    Those wishing to see rather more comprehensive extracts from the general election review have since last March – and without complaint from anyone in the party – been able to do so on the Liberator website:

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