One of things that I have to constantly remind myself is that I am a political obsessive and therefore the way that I view political events is not the same as most people. I am aware of pretty much everything that happens of any political significance and hence can use all of that information to build up a judgement about events.
For the vast majority of people though it does not work like that. Instead they will see a few headlines and perhaps see some of the news stories around politics. If there is a big political story then it is likely to imprint itself on most people's consciousness (or at least those who follow the news at a national level) but many of the details may not stick and instead they will be left with an overall impression of the story/issue.
I think that regarding the 2010 general election, those factors may help the Lib Dems in ways that us politicos have not fully appreciated. Let's have a look at what happened from the start of the election campaign to the point at which the new government was formed (with respect to how things affected the Lib Dems) from the perspective of someone who followed it very closely (i.e. me):
- In the first week Labour and the Tories battled it out over the £6 billion NI rise with the Tories trying to paint it as a £6 billion "jobs tax". At this point the Lib Dems were largely frozen out of the narrative.
- Then just after the launch of the Lib Dem manifesto things started to change. The Lib Dem approval ratings started to rise. We were at 26% (up a good few points from where we were just before the election was called) before the leaders' debates.
- The first leaders' debate then happened watched by nearly 10 million people live and suddenly Nick Clegg was being praised from the rafters in most quarters. Some of the coverage seemed a bit over the top even to Lib Dems but there was no doubting the narrative was very strongly with the Lib Dems and their leader who by all accounts "won" the first debate. The Lib Dem polling soon after this shot up to the early-mid 30s with the Tories and Labour dropping about equally and the Lib Dems even ahead of the Tories by some measures.
- From then on, the debates basically defined the election campaign. The few days after the first one were spent analysing where it "went wrong" for Brown and Cameron and what they could do better next time as well as expectations being built up further for Clegg.
- The second debate was viewed by a lot fewer people live (around 4 million) but again Clegg was widely perceived to have done very well. This time though it seemed that him and Cameron were quite closely matched. Lib Dem poll figures were still very high relative to their usual performance.
- In the final debate most measures gave it to Cameron although Clegg still held up well.
- In the final week the Lib Dems still had very good poll figures suggesting a hung parliament was on the cards with the party having perhaps 80 or even 100 seats. The public had been subjected day after day for three weeks through TV, radio and press to stark examples of the effects of the First Past the Post electoral system if these polling figures were correct and how Labour could e.g. come third in the vote but first in seats and how Lib Dems could come first but have less than half the seats of the other two parties.
- The election then happened and although the Lib Dem vote share was 1% point higher than in 2005 at 24% it was nowhere near the 30-odd% predicted by some polls even late in the campaign. The party even ended up with 5 fewer seats than in 2005. A very disappointing result given the excitement of the election campaign.
- However there was a hung parliament with the Lib Dems effectively King-makers and after several days of negotiations where Tories and Labour tried publicly to woo the Lib Dems a deal was struck with the Tories which gave the Lib Dems 5 cabinet seats and made Nick Clegg Deputy Prime Minister and perhaps the second most powerful person in the country. The Lib Dem negotiating team was widely praised for having done a great job getting far more of their manifesto into the government programme than their 57 seats (vs the Conservative's 306) would arguably warrant.
I'm sure I have missed some stuff out there but I think that is a reasonable synopsis of what happened.
I know many politicos now refer to the "Cleggmania" period as a "bubble" that then burst. They suggest that the fact the Lib Dems only polled slightly better than in 2005 and actually lost seats shows that it was all basically hype. For a number of analysts and observers that is the story of the 2010 election. It shows that the Lib Dems cannot really do any better than around 24% of the vote and will be lucky to do better in future that maybe 50-odd or 60-odd seats.
Now let's look at what happened from the perspective of a non-politically interested observer who vaguely followed the news during and after the election campaign:
- The election campaign started with the usual arguments.
- Suddenly they became aware of Nick Clegg having not really heard of him before. He came across very well on the TV debates and seemed a refreshing change to the "old" parties.
- There was a fair bit of talk about how the Lib Dems could do really well in the election, the polls are saying so and they may even get the most votes. They may even end up in government.
- There are some odd stories about how Labour could get the most seats even though they get the fewest votes of the three main parties. Surely that can't be right!?
- The election happens, there is no clear winner and the next day both David Cameron and Gordon Brown are publicly trying to woo the Lib Dems talking up the similarities and how good it would be to have Lib Dems in government.
- A deal is struck and the Lib Dems as predicted during the campaign end up in government with that nice, telegenic Clegg bloke as Deputy Prime Minister.
I think the fact that the Lib Dems did barely better than in 2005 despite the huge Cleggmania boost will not really have registered. The narrative of Lib Dems doing well during the campaign and then ending up in government will be what is mainly remembered.
The reason why this matters I think is because of how this narrative could affect the next general election. We in the Lib Dems know that the main reason given by people for not voting for us is that they do not think that we can win. But the "vague" narrative above suggests a very strong electoral campaign performance followed by government positions. The two parts of the narrative become self-reinforcing and suggest that far from being a "wasted vote" a vote for the Lib Dems made a big difference.
I know that there are loads of unknowns about what will happen during the next parliament with Lib Dems in government but I do think that the way the 2010 general election played out and what people generally remember of it in a few years' time will be to the advantage of the party.