The Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson’s problem is not that she’s a woman, it’s that she lacks the intangible quality of charisma that helps people like Donald Trump get elected, writes Susan Dalgety.
Oh, how do you solve a problem like Jo Swinson?
The Lib Dems’ new leader may have thrown herself into the general election fray with all the jolly earnestness of a hockey team captain, but her enthusiasm is not rubbing off on the electorate.
A YouGov poll shows that the more people get to see her shiny, happy personality, the less they like her.
Their first survey, done the day after she became leader in July, found that 21 per cent of people had a favourable opinion of her, and 29 per cent an unfavourable one. Most people had never heard of her.
Today, her recognition factor has grown, but so has people’s dislike of her, with nearly half of those asked (48 per cent) saying they had an unfavourable view of her. Her popularity has risen imperceptibly to 24 per cent. Her party is now more popular than she is.
She still has a long way to go before she plumbs the depths of unpopularity enjoyed by Labour’s magic grandpa, Jeremy Corbyn. His negative rating stands, according to YouGov, at 61 per cent, but at least Corbyn’s fans (21 per cent have a positive opinion of him) are equally split between men and women. Swinson is less popular with women than men.
Leah Franchetti, a leading Labour activist, summed up people’s antipathy toward Swinson earlier this week when she tweeted, “I find Swinson’s style patronising and arrogant. I totally get why she wants to present herself as *candidate* for PM but to do that without apparently any grip on reality comes across as delusional.”
‘Worst kind of head girl’
Well, she would say that wouldn’t she, I hear you cry. She’s Labour. But a quick poll of my non-partisan friends – a group that has grown exponentially in the last couple of years as people desert their traditional parties in despair – chimes with Franchetti’s trenchant view.
“It is the way she intones her words,” says one. “She is the worst kind of head girl,” says another. “She is just so… patronising,” wails a floating voter, who desperately wanted to vote Lib Dem, but now won’t.
On paper, Swinson is the perfect party leader for the early 21st century. She is female and young (ish), but has years of experience behind her. She believes fervently in the European Union and the United Kingdom and learned some hard political lessons from her spell as a member of the Tory-Lib Dem austerity coalition.
Like Nicola Sturgeon, she has enthusiastically embraced every tip her stylist suggests, from wearing bright block colours to perfectly groomed hair and flawless make-up. And she uses social media like a pro.
She has even written a memoir, ‘Equal Power: Gender Equality and How to Achieve It’, which exhorts us all to “take action” to “challenge the gendered concentration of power in our society”.
If she had been born in the USA, she would likely be one of the dozen or so Democrats fighting for the Presidential nomination. As a British politician, brought up in Milngavie, she is struggling to make an impact against the boorish Boris Johnson and the inept Jeremy Corbyn.
And it is not because of her sex. There remains a myriad of cultural and organisational obstacles that stop women and girls from fulfilling their full potential, not least in politics, but Swinson’s unpopularity isn’t because she is a woman.
Adern and Obama ooze charisma
It is because she lacks political charisma, that special power that magically transforms ostensibly unattractive, narcissistic politicians like Johnson, Alex Salmond and Donald Trump into winners.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, oozes charisma. As does Michelle Obama. Nicola Sturgeon has her own particular, slightly introverted, appeal. And Labour’s Jess Phillips is sometimes in danger of believing too much in her own, very powerful, charisma. Then she laughs at herself, making her even more potent.
But poor Swinson has nothing but her ambition. Recalling her 13-year-old self in her book she wrote, “If you had asked me, I’d have thought I could do anything.”
It was that same irksome self confidence that led her to declare at her party’s campaign launch that she could be Prime Minister, in the face of electoral arithmetic that would daunt even Trump’s ego.
And it convinced her, and her team, that a presidential style campaign, with Swinson front and centre, was the way to persuade the millions of undecided voters to plump for the Lib Dems.
It wasn’t, and hopefully she has found out in time to rescue her leadership. She may be annoying, but we need all the female leaders we can get, even bad ones. After all, we have had to put up with centuries of terrible men in charge.
Elsewhere on the election campaign, I was surprised, but delighted, to see that Labour’s manifesto, published on Thursday, protects women’s sex-based rights.
Labour promises that the single sex-based exemptions in the 2010 Equality Act, such as women and girls-only sport and women’s refuges, are “understood and fully enforced in service provision”.
It will also make misogyny and violence against women a hate crime.
So far, so good sisters. But a few pages on, and lo and behold, there is a commitment to reform the Gender Recognition Act so that transgender people can simply declare themselves male or female.
In an effort to clarify their apparently schizophrenic policy, and to pacify LGBT+ Labour, Equalities spokesperson Dawn Butler tweeted yesterday that “there is no way spaces will be permitted to discriminate against trans people”. And she promised Labour would remove “outdated language” from the Equality Act.
My reading of this is straightforward. Under Corbyn Labour, a man can declare himself a woman, while sporting a beard and a penis, and she will be immediately allowed access to single-sex spaces currently protected by the Equality Act, because she is a woman now isn’t she, she said so.
And there we have it. Just like their two-faced approach to Brexit – Keir Starmer is sent out appeal to the Remainers, while Len McCluskey spins on behalf of the Leave brigade – Labour thinks it can blur the lines between sex and gender, and the feminists won’t notice. Only we have, Dawn. We have.