April 12, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
At one stage, during the mass leaders’ debate last week, Nick Clegg turned and demanded an apology from Ed Miliband for the amount of debt that Labour left the country in when they left office in 2010. Earlier in the debate, Clegg had torn into David Cameron, lambasting his Coalition partner for the severity of the cuts the Conservatives had forced on the country and were planning to force in the future. In the media room, Ryan Coetzee punched the air in delight.
Coetzee is the Liberal Democrat party Director of Strategy. A combative South African, he is leading one of the most finely targeted campaigns in election history. Out of necessity. In 2012 the Lib Dems spent a reported seven figure sum on ‘Connect’, a database software from the USA that helps a political party target not just the people that they think might vote for them, but also to understand which messages are getting through to those voters and which might make them vote. Coetzee punched the air because the messages delivered in the Leaders Debate by Clegg were what he had found those thinking of voting Lib Dem in marginal constituencies wanted, or needed to hear in order to be more likely to vote. The message is that the Lib Dems will cut less than the Tories and spend less than Labour, therefore delivering a #strongeconomy #fairsociety (Clegg’s hashtags).
It is a further example of the very much under the radar election campaign the Lib Dems are undertaking. Clegg was widely considered to have ‘lost’ that debate. The Lib Dems are consistently polling at 6% in national polls, which, on a uniform swing, means they could have fewer than five seats. You would have thought the party would be falling apart. But Coetzee knows, and some political commentators can see, that if you understand how First Past the Post works, it is quite possible for them to get 6% of the vote and still get about 40 seats, making them serious contenders for a coalition.
The Liberal Democrats are working on the constituencies they hold, and, apparently, only on the constituencies they hold. There are 57 of them, and historically Lib Dems make very good MPs. So, when constituents are given the name of their Lib Dem MP they tend to answer the question of whom they will vote for differently. Having also worked out where the Lib Dems message of equidistance between the two mainstream parties is hitting home, they are targeting their resources, both human and financial, only at those constituencies where they have a chance of winning. This is why they are allegedly abandoning some of the constituencies they currently hold. This may include that of Danny Alexander, the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is currently expected to lose his seat to the SNP by a mile.
What is most ironic about this strategy is that it relies completely on the workings of an election system the Lib Dems have committed their last 100 years to abolishing. In 1974 Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe refused to join a Conservative coalition with Edward Heath despite being offered the position of Home Secretary because Heath wouldn’t offer electoral reform. In 1983 the Alliance (a combination of SDP and Liberal Party) achieved 25% of the vote and a paltry 3% of the seats. In 2010, despite ‘Cleggmania’, they got 23% of the vote and only 9% of the seats. In this election they may well get a higher percentage of seats than votes for the first time in generations. 6% of the vote adds up to about 2 million votes. In a marginal seat it takes about 20,000 votes to win. 40 multiplied by 20,000 is 800,000 votes. So a highly targeted campaign in which they win small and lose big in their seats is the perfect gaming of the election system.
I wonder what the Lib a Dems will think of electoral reform if it works?!