The Lib Dem leadership contender’s condescension to Govan won’t convince voters she’s sound on social justice, writes Dani Garavelli
It should have been an auspicious start to Jo Swinson’s leadership bid. The Liberal Democrats had just seen a surge in the European elections – coming second after the Brexit Party in England and Wales and third after the SNP and the Brexit Party in Scotland. Swinson had a place on the Question Time panel, so she could make the announcement with maximum fanfare and go on to demonstrate her political nous in front of a large TV audience.
But no-one promised Swinson a rose garden. In the end, neither her bright yellow jacket, nor her forced breeziness was enough to provide an “I agree with Nick” moment. Instead, some questionable statistics and a faint Milngavie air of superiority meant that – despite a YouGov poll suggesting the Lib Dems would be front-runners in an immediate general election – the talk of the virtual steamie was her spurious assumption about a constituency considerably less affluent than her own.
Swinson – who had earlier been larking around with Tory leadership contender Rory Stewart – suggested that, while 80 per cent of young people in her middle class constituency of East Dunbartonshire went on to university, the figure for Govan was just 4 per cent . The SNP argued the proportion of Govan High pupils going on to university was, in fact, 13 per cent while the proportion going on to higher education was 25 per cent.
There continues to be a huge educational disparity in Scotland and most parties, including the SNP, agree early intervention is the best way to tackle it.
But Swinson’s stereotyping hinted at something more sinister – a detachment from the lives of the working class people she wants her party to “help”. It’s not just her. Swinson’s leadership rival, Sir Ed Davey (Kingston and Surbiton), the departing leader, Vince Cable (Twickenham), and the leader before that, Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale), all talk the social justice talk from the safety of the suburbs. So too did David Steel, of course, but – while centrism has an allure in an age of extremism – that fey paternalism is a bit passé now.
The national Lib Dem bounce-back is remarkable. In the run-up to the 2015 general election, which saw the Lib Dems routed, I went up to Danny Alexander’s Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey constituency, which he had won by a majority of 8,765, and struggled to find anyone willing to admit they’d be voting Lib Dem again.
In the run-up to the 2017 general election, I went out to East Dunbartonshire. There were many Swinson posters, and it seemed likely she would win back the seat she lost two years earlier. But it was also clear that this turn-around was about opposing a second indyref rather than an indication that the Lib Dems had been forgiven for their coalition crimes.
This current surge, which saw them go from one to 16 MEPs, has come about only because the Lib Dems were the most compelling option for Remainers in England (and the most compelling option for Remainers who couldn’t bring themselves to vote SNP in Scotland).
But such a swell in popularity will not be sustained by the Lib Dems’ Brexit position alone. For it to capitalise on its current success, the party will have to persuade voters it now walks the social justice walk, while coming up with policies more in line with the values it is supposed to espouse.
Is Swinson capable of achieving this?
First elected at the age of 25, she is something of a mystery. I have met her several times and interviewed her once. Face to face she is likeable and unassuming, if a bit earnest. At the interview, shortly after she returned from maternity leave and in the wake of the pairing scandal, she was fierce about the need for proxy voting. But she was also reflective about past mistakes: her early opposition to all-women shortlists, for example, and her part in the handling of the Chris Rennard affair, in which Rennard was allowed to stand down as chief executive (as opposed to being the subject of a full inquiry) after allegations of sexual harassment were made against him.
On television, though, there is something of the school prefect about her. She can come over as unsympathetic and overly self-assured, even when – as on last week’s Question Time – she is on shaky ground.
The ideal candidate for Lib Dem leader would probably be someone untainted by the coalition years. But Layla Moran – said to have been favoured by departing leader Cable – didn’t think she should stand after just two years as an MP, and there is no-one else who fits the bill.
Arguably, Swinson has more in her favour than Davey. She was a junior minister during the coalition, while he was in the cabinet, making her slightly less culpable. As junior equalities minister, she was responsible for bringing in shared parental leave. This was a major win, although it is also worth noting that she went on to benefit from that policy, while backing welfare reforms that had a disproportionate impact on poorer women.
There are party members who believe her Scottish nationality is an asset as she will be able to promote herself as bridging the north-south divide. But it has its drawbacks too. As a Scottish MP, she will face a greater barrage of social media abuse – with independence supporters constantly on her case – and a greater harking back to the coalition years .
That much became clear as soon as she announced her candidacy. Since Question Time on Thursday, social media has been awash with reminders of Swinson’s voting record on Trident, the bedroom tax and income tax for the highest earners. Meanwhile, she and Nicola Sturgeon exchanged hostile tweets challenging each other over the veracity of the Govan statistic.
It didn’t reflect particularly well on either of them. Swinson seems to have got both the figure and the tone wrong; suggesting people from Govan have low aspirations is an obvious gaffe. At the same time, however, focusing so heavily on the precise figure makes the SNP appear apathetic about the continued disparity between middle class and working class areas. Thirteen per cent is better than four per cent, but it is still much lower than Bearsden or Giffnock.
As for the claim that 94 per cent of Govan High pupils go on to “positive destinations”: I do wish politicians wouldn’t underestimate our intelligence. The term “positive destination” includes low paid jobs and zero hours contracts. The implication that there are no problems in Govan is as misleading as the implication they are endemic.
Swinson’s decision to take this tack on higher education allowed the SNP to undermine her before she’d got off the starting blocks. But it wasn’t her only counterproductive move. She also refused to rule out a future coalition, saying only that she wouldn’t prop up the Conservatives or Labour in their current guise.
In another interview, she expressed her regret over the broken manifesto promise on tuition fees in terms of the seats the party lost as a consequence; particularly her own. It was a cynical approach and an indication that she still lacks an understanding of the scale of the betrayal.
The Lib Dems have a more coherent policy on Brexit than Labour; but, in their hunger for power, they too lost the trust of their most loyal supporters. Swinson will need to raise her game dramatically if she is going to regain the confidence of voters and convince them that, re-empowered, the Lib Dems wouldn’t make the same mistakes all over again.