Paddy Ashdown: opinion polls killed Liberal Democrats' election chances

Election strategist speaks out on David Cameron’s ‘irresponsible’ tactics in Scotland and explains his defiant optimism in the wake of a ruinous result

Paddy Ashdown, who oversaw the Liberal Democrat election campaign, admitted his party had been entirely blindsided by the result and said it had been “killed” by the inaccuracy of the opinion polls. In his first newspaper interview since the Lib Dems’ catastrophic performance, Lord Ashdown, who after the publication of Thursday’s exit poll said he would eat his hat if it were true, said: “We were absolutely blindsided, just like everyone else, except of course the good Professor Curtice [who was behind the exit poll] – hence my ‘eat my hat’ comment.

“Actually, what killed us was the inaccuracy of the [pre-election] polls. If the polls had shown the real situation – the Tories with a clear lead over Labour – then the argument that we had to be there to moderate them would have had far greater traction. Paradoxically, the polls helped the Tories by magnifying the fear factor that they played so ruthlessly,” he said. “The public feared Miliband/Salmond more than they feared a Tory majority. They are about to find out how wrong they were.”

He added: “There were people that were coming out to vote that we had never seen before. They were the ‘never voters’ who we all ignored – the invisible spectrum no one bothered to look into until they became visible after they had voted. The Tories, with more paid-for polling than us, had a better handle on this. But even then I think it was surprise for them too.”

Ashdown believes David Cameron targeted his coalition partners ruthlessly. “Cameron could only save himself by taking Lib Dem seats so he had to do it as effectively as he could. It was his way of surviving. I suspect he was, like John Major in 1992, as surprised as the rest of us. Lynton Crosby’s campaign will be praised to the echo, but the outcome will be as much unexpected success for him and as an unexpected disaster for us.”

It is expected that either Tim Farron or Norman Lamb will be installed as the successor to Nick Clegg, who resigned as Lib Dem leader on Friday, by late July. This will give the victor time to prepare for what is likely to be a long inquest over how the party conducted itself in coalition, and whether it was right to project a centrist image in the general election.

Ashdown also vented his anger at the way Cameron and the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, combined to play the threat of Scotland. “I think Cameron made one of the most irresponsible speeches ever made by a prime minister when, the day after the referendum, he made an ill-advised attempt to grab on to the coat-tails of Ukip by pulling an ill-thought-out proposition for English votes out of the hat,” he said. “This made Scots believe he was about to betray the promises he had made to them in the last days of their referendum. SNP mark one was Alex Salmond’s creation. But post-referendum SNP mark two was in very large measure the creation of David Cameron.

Is this a sort of ‘SNP moment’ when our numbers surge after a defeat, because the defeat illuminates more than success what we actually fought for?

“The irony is that having done more than anyone else to create the very fear he played on before Thursday, he was then able to ride it all the way to Downing Street. And, whether knowingly or not, Nicola Sturgeon helped him every step of the way. Why should she not? She has now positioned herself just where she wants to be: the SNP versus the Tories, which, given the toxicity of the Tories in Scotland, means she is winning all the way to the next referendum. She, not the Tories, is the biggest winner in all this, and David Cameron’s foolishness after the Scottish referendum is what, more than anything else, helped her get there. The upshot? Thanks to a Conservative prime minister, the union is now more at risk than at any moment in the last three centuries.”

But Ashdown suggests the undoing of Labour may yet provide an opportunity for his party. “It reminds me of 1983, after the Michael Foot defeat. I have thought for some time this could be for Labour like the first two decades of the 20th century when the liberals lost their traction electorally because that was the era of mass movements and Liberals could not go there. This is the era of individual choice and socialism cannot go there. That is Labour’s dilemma: their inability to find a narrative other than the [Tony] Blair narrative, which they have now rejected.

“So they are becalmed and find their vote being eaten up wholesale by the SNP in Scotland, and now Ukip in their northern cities. Like after Foot in 1983, there will now most probably be a long period of Labour soul-searching and debate. accompanied by the usual blood-letting. That is an an opportunity for us – we don’t have a problem with our narrative. We need to get straight out now. Look at the map of where we came second. That’s where we have to go first, and we should start as soon as we can.”

He added: “I think this government will become unpopular faster than any other of recent years. Whatever Cameron’s instincts are, he will not be allowed to track to the centre by his own right wing – Major would have called them the ‘bastards’ – only there are not 16 of them now, there are 60. I think Cameron will push the referendum forward to 2016 so that it doesn’t disrupt his whole government and before he gets unpopular.

“Either way, the next European referendum looks set to widen the long, slow-motion schism in the Tories in the same way as the 1974 European referendum did to Labour, before the breakaway of the SDP.”

Ashdown admits to a strange optimism, however, and insists the response to the election result gives his party good reason to remain optimistic. He said: “We now have this strange phenomenon. In the past two days we have had 4,500 ring up and join us. That’s twice the surge we saw at the height of Clegg-mania in 2010. Yes, some of these are people that left in the past. But most are those we have never seen before who now say we realise we have got to come out and help. Is this a sort of ‘SNP moment’ when our numbers surge after a defeat, because the defeat illuminates more than success what we actually fought for? Its too early to say. But one thing is sure. We need to reach out to these people and get out on the streets campaigning again – especially in those 40 seats where we are now second to the Tories.

“Churchill once said, ‘On defeat, defiance’. That is exactly my view.”


Patrick Wintour Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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