Swinson Surge: Could Jo Swinson be our next Prime Minister?

The political news coverage over the last few weeks has been predominantly dominated by an utterly childish leadership contest in the Conservative Party, in which 0.138% of the population voted for this current sitting Prime Minister.

In this volatile political climate, and with thousands of people joining the Liberal Democrats in the last week, it has become clear that the country is crying out for a liberal alternative. We are at a crossroads in British politics where we are faced with the choice between a populist right led by the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, and no credible opposition from Labour, with Corbyn having lost complete control of his party. That simply isn’t good enough. Britain deserves better.

By electing Jo Swinson, we now have an opportunity to rally around a leader who can bring together people from different political backgrounds around common values of diversity, equality and internationalism. As a party going forward, we need to broaden our appeal to encompass not just those who voted to Remain, but also those who voted to Leave because the economy, which concentrates a lot of wealth in London and the South East, doesn’t benefit communities in other parts of the UK. The lack of attention given to the issues people face in their everyday lives by national politicians has fuelled a lot of anger and made some people feel left behind by Westminster politics. That has to change, and the Liberal Democrats stand ready to address the growing inequalities in this country and take people’s concerns seriously.

I was out campaigning in Brecon a couple of weeks ago with Chuka Umunna, Jo Swinson and by-election candidate, Jane Dodds. We were walking down the street and were approached by an activist from the Brexit Party who shouted “traitors” at us. We dismissed it at first, but it was only in a conversation later that day that I came to realise it was a revealing reflection of the state of our politics. This is exactly the kind of language that fuels the ‘us vs. them’ narrative, which Nigel Farage actively encouraged when he uttered the words “we won it [Brexit] without a single bullet being fired” on national television on the morning of the EU referendum result, not even two weeks after Jo Cox had been brutally murdered by a far-right extremist.

In spite of this, liberalism and its values of tolerance, equality and freedom are thriving in this country, and both local and European election results in May are testament to that, with Liberal Democrats polling almost 20% nationally. Our clear and unambiguous ‘Stop Brexit’ message resonated with people up and down the country and crossed traditional party lines, drawing in support from lifelong Tory and Labour voters. Jo’s non-tribal approach to politics makes her and the Liberal Democrats the perfect alternative for disillusioned voters across the country.

I was proud to support Jo as a candidate for the Lib Dem leadership. Now, I’m even prouder to be supporting Jo as a candidate for future Prime Minister.

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33 Comments

  • Paul Barker 29th Jul '19 - 5:55pm

    To get even a bare majority we need around 32%, right now we are probably on about 19%. We have moved a long way in the last 3 Months but we need to move as far again in the next 3.
    Can we do that on our own ? Maybe but we would be farther along if we could put together an Alliance of Pro-Remain Parties.

  • Carl Reader 29th Jul '19 - 6:18pm

    For the Lib Dems to become a major political force they will have to have a radical policy programme that will address the concerns of the majority of ordinary voters such as growing inequality, housing, the NHS, the sense of powerlessness and alienation etc. Sticking to the one trick pony of Stop Brexit won’t wash at a general election and the Lib Dems would have missed a golden opportunity.

  • Carl Reader is right. We need to have bold policies, and just as importantly, bold, clear messages to represent them.
    Robert Sayer says we have some good policy papers. Yes, but with respect Robert, the voters are not interested in policy papers. We need the (excellent) content of those papers boiled down to simple memorable phrases. A penny on income tax for education; fair votes; No war in Iraq; Stop Brexit. These are the kind of policies that have worked for us in the past because we could sell them in simple clear messages. But (apart from the obvious) where are such policies now?
    EXPERIMENT: I’ve just pretended to be an ordinary person (quite a stretch!) who is interested in voting LibDem, likes Jo, likes our line on Brexit, but wants to know what other policies we have. So I did what normal people do, and went to the party website. Oooh, sure enough there’s a policy section. It starts with the beginning of the preamble to our constitution (good) and then? A looooong list of links to policy papers and conference motions. These are all very worthy, and of course necessary. But as that ordinary voter? I moved on to watch some cat videos.
    We need to pick one or two great policies (no more than that), boil them down to simple slogans and hammer these home repeatedly – in interviews, leaflets, press releases, twitter and conversations down the pub – till we get sick of them.
    Brexit must absolutely remain the core of our messaging for now. But we need a couple of other such issues too. Making this happen is a big part of Jo’s job now.

  • Peter Chapman 29th Jul '19 - 7:31pm

    In all honesty I think people are getting carried away. We dont have the organisation or capacity to put up a winning campaign in more than 60 seats at most. Many seats are “black holes” in terms of organisation and members with no effective regional or national support (or finance) to fill them like the Tories or Labour have . And if we do win a substantial number of seats we should not even contemplate any form of coalition without immediate electoral reform as a non negotiable condition. Surely people have learnt from 2010?.

  • We need to face the reality that it is all about resources. I am afraid Peter Chapman is right. The question for the party is how to put enough resources into the seats that seem winnable at present – whole building up an organisation in all the rest. All of this without the resources we need.
    I would be fascinated to see how this could be done.

  • David Becket 29th Jul '19 - 8:34pm

    Peter Chapman, and those who caution about getting carried away are correct. Lib Dems have had many false dawns, and the surge at the moment is for Boris.

    Robet Sayer is correct about using local parties, however leaving local parties to dream up their own messages as and when they think fit achieves little. We need a targeted set of simple messages distributed to local parties and owners of My Councillor sites. We could for example have an education week when every My Councillor carries the same targeted Education message and every local party either puts it in a Focus or a press release.

    As communication is electronic it is not expensive in terms of resources once it is set up, and it does not need an army of experts to produce. Similar messages could go to Twitter and Facebook.

    The issue is management and organisation, which are not our strong points.

    We need to up our game, we need to take ideas like this, many appear on LDV. However the centre of the party does not appear to be in listening mode, and in a years time we could be looking back at another false dawn

  • gavin grant 29th Jul '19 - 8:39pm

    I am not so pessimistic. Put the current polling into Electoral Calculus you see 60-80 Lib Dem MPs. Our Party’s research takes that towards 100. However as many again sit within 5-10% of winning. The electorate is hugely volatile. Jo is an attractive Leader to many voters and Is a stark contrast to BoJo & Corbyn. Remain/Leave is redefining politics. The old economic “Left/Right” still counts but so increasingly does the social “Open/Liberal” versus “Closed/Conservative” axis. Fascinating times. One of this country’s leading academics who studies political trends and identities sees us getting around 25% with Labour and Tories splitting around 50%. At these scores “ground operations” still matter but they are less relevant.

  • John Marriott 29th Jul '19 - 8:47pm

    In a word, NO. Liberal parties tend to be doing well in a European context if they get to double figures. The Canadian Liberal Party is a very different animal. Remember how FPTP did for the SDP/Liberal Alliance In 1983, when it was still scoring around 23% in opinion polls.

  • Phil Wainewright 29th Jul '19 - 8:57pm

    Gavin Grant is right about the upside, but Peter Chapman and Tom Harney are right about resources. Does that mean we should just give up and focus on a meagre target of 60-70 seats? If we don’t believe we can form a government, why should anyone else? We must pursue a ground war to secure the 60-70, at the same time as raising the money to fund an ‘air war’ of direct mail and digital across another 300. British politics have not been as volatile for almost hundred years. It’s up to us to seize the moment.

  • John Marriott, in Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, for instance, liberal parties have recently (or in the case of the Netherlands, currently) been the largest party and produced liberal prime ministers. Also in Switzerland and Estonia they have done pretty good. And do you count Macron’s party in France liberal?

  • I’m wondering… As the Brexit/Remain has become the single most important issue in the politics of the UK, does this mean, that the profile of the potential Lib Dems voters has changed, and have the Lib Dems considered this, while deciding, which constituencies to target? 🤔

  • Peter Hayes 29th Jul '19 - 9:51pm

    I live in a LibDem/Conservative marginal where the Tories put a lot of HQ money into a vote conservative poster campaign in 2015 because they could pretend it was for the council. Next time, although I can no longer deliver, I see a strong local council run by the LibDems and that is what we have to build on, ground up as we always have. Jo is a great public voice but local support always wins, good luck on Thursday.

  • Peter Chapman 29th Jul '19 - 9:58pm

    Phil Wainewright raises the really interesting question.: Are we raising the £30-40 million required to run a targeted mail campaign across 300 constituencies?

    That I believe is key to any dreams of a major breakthrough

  • Peter Chapman and Phil Wainwright are right. We have to raise a huge war chest now so we can compete on an equal footing with the well funded Tory and Labour parties. And yes, we have to target enough seats to win the election. More like £50 million in my view. Pie in the sky? Well that’s what we’d need to win, so unless we seriously convince people we’re worth it then forget it.

  • To be the largest party in the House of Commons we need more than 158 MPs. In 2017 we were second in only 38 seats a fall of 25 from 2015. I suppose we could be planning to target 75 or so, but targeting more than 160 seats is a huge jump. We are talking about seats like Basingstoke where we achieved 24.5% in 2010, Hexham where we achieved 29.9% in 2010 or Morecambe and Lunesdale where we achieved 11.4% in 2017. Both Peter Chapman and Tom Harney are correct; do we have enough resources to support fighting over 160 seats?

    The Federal Party needs to look at this question and inform the membership if it is going to plan to target over 160 seats and if so how it is planning to fund and support these new target seats? Is it going to fund agents even if shared between four constituencies? Is it going to fund constituency wide leaflet delivery mainly carried out by commercial firms?

  • John Marriott 29th Jul '19 - 10:37pm

    @Patrick
    I’ve just been googling liberal parties in the three countries you mention. In Denmark the party that actually has the word ‘Liberal’ as part of its title currently has four seats in the Danish Parliament. Mark Rutte’s Party in the Netherlands might have liberal tendencies; but is it really liberal in the pure sense that most LDV contributors appear to want? Quite a few parties in Belgium appear to be happy to embrace the word ‘liberal’ in a rather crowded field.

    What I have said before is that, in order to have a piece of the action in today’s politics, liberal parties may have to compromise or at least acknowledge the right of people to have some opinions which may deviate from but whose basic direction of travel is similar to their own.

    All the examples you have quoted illustrate the fact that, even if a party may be judged to be in some aspects liberal, it appears only to be able to achieve a position of power through coalition. After all, it is quite likely, with a few notable exceptions, that this is what any form of PR, which operates in most of the countries you mention, will deliver.

  • All the pessimists in the thread make good sense, they are right that we will probably win less Seats than our percentage figures might suggest. However anything heading towards 30% will still get us hundreds of MPs. In the last 3 Months we have gone from 7% to 19%, at a time of virtually wall to wall coverage of Labour & The Tories.
    Many psephologists think that Leader ratings make a much better predictor of General Elections than Voting Intention Polls. We have been included in a “Preferred Prime Minister ” Poll for the 1st time & Jo got 12% choosing her, at a time when hardly anyone knows who she is yet. She was only 3% behind Corbyn who has had endless publicity since his election.
    There is a massive lack of enthusiasm for either Labour or Tories, a lot of Voters want something better & they are willing to listen to us.

  • Peter Chapman and Mick Taylor,

    I think £30-40 million or even £50 million are much too high estimates.

    In the 2017 general election “the Conservatives spent more than £18.5m while losing their majority at last year’s general election, against £11m of spending by Labour and £6.8m by the Liberal Democrats” (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/mar/19/electoral-commission-conservatives-spent-lost-majority-2017-election).

    At the referendum both official campaigns spent about £6.8 million with Remain total being £19.3 million and Leave £13.3 million (https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/political-parties-campaigning-and-donations/campaign-spending-and-donations-at-referendums/campaign-spending-at-the-eu-referendum).

    Therefore we should be OK with about £12 or 13 million. (I think election expenses limits are about £14,000 per constituency, if this was given by the Federal Party to 170 seats this would only total £2.38 million (easy to afford out of £13 million.)

    Paul Barker,

    With the Tories on 21.2%, Labour on 19.3%, Brexit on 17.4%, Greens on 8.7% and us on 28.9% Electoral Calculus have us making 267 gains and the Brexit Party making 72. However, this prediction has issues if you can look at each constituency result. Do you actually believe we could win lots of seats where the only piece of literature delivered across the whole constituency was the one delivered free by Royal Mail?

  • John Marriott – The Green are also surging in Germany. They are the closest equivalents to Social Liberalism in German politics, not the FDP.

  • Charles Pragnell 30th Jul '19 - 7:27am

    My understanding is that our campaigns team have identified 82 urgent priority seats, where are prospect are good. Sir John Curtus believes we are at the forty to sixty mark at the moment. I think the focus should be on the seats where we did well in May elections, places like the Vale of Whitehorse the Cotswolds, Chelmesford, Mole Valley, plus places like Woking and Guildford. Our focus should target certain seats in South West London and Central London.
    Realistically I think we will make advances, and be pushing back towards 40 to 60 seats.
    The more Labour and The Tories attack us,the stronger we will become.

  • Andrew McCaig 30th Jul '19 - 7:35am

    We are talking very hypothetical stuff here. Right now I think we are back to where we were for 40 years pre 2010, with a reliable minimum of about 13% (brief interruption in the days of the SLD), and the potential to get above 20%. The probability is to stay in this range and we know ruthless targeting of central resources is needed to win more than 30 seats. Every seat won from 20% is defying gravity.
    But once you get above 30%, the ground game becomes much less important and you start winning seats with minimal local effort like Labour and the Tories. In 2017 the surge of Labour was all about national perceptions reinforced by social media, not delivering leaflets and canvassing. The increase in Labour vote was only a little higher in Colne Valley (massive effort) than in Huddersfield (freepost only). That effort may have given them the extra few hundred votes to win the seat, but most of the was the public perception that May needed to be stopped and Corbyn was the only person available to do it…
    So spreading central resources too thin is a very high risk strategy for a general election, probably within a year, where we are objectively more likely to be squeezed again than surging forward. But spreading the message using local resources everywhere we can and getting our membership doing something is a sound strategy.

  • Nonconformistradical 30th Jul '19 - 7:47am

    @Michael BG
    “I think election expenses limits are about £14,000 per constituency”
    You can find the amounts for 2017 at https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/214516/UKPGE-Part-3-Spending-and-donations.pdf – it varies according to the number of voters.

    But that isn’t the only issue – there is also national spending – some info on this at https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/224810/UKPGE-2017-Political-Parties-guidance.pdf (page 7).

    Personally I wonder if the amount a party spends on national campaigning ought to be divvied up across all the constituencies where it stands candidates – I’m thinking about possibilities of controlling spending in marginal seats where one wealthy party manages to get away with targetting (some of) its national spending at such constutencies (without mentioning candidates’ names).

    And then what about all the 3rd party stuff on social media?

  • Peter Chaman 30th Jul '19 - 8:22am

    The spending figures from the Tories and Labour do not show the “hidden expenditure” that they benefit from: Full time agents / trade union staff seconded/ third party direct mail etc workers on the ground etc The nationally declared and constituency figures no way show the real “value” of their campaign resources .Toover come this we wold need massive national expenditure to compensate

  • John Marriott 30th Jul '19 - 8:53am

    @Thomas
    Yes; but are they Liberal? You should know how important this is to LDV purists. Talking of the FDP I like the way they are nearly always described as the ‘business friendly’ party, when they clearly bill themselves as ‘die Liberalen’. They hardly ever get any directly elected (FPTP) MPs, are lucky to get into double digit percentage figures and have at least once failed to make the 5% hurdle to have any representation at all in the Bundestag. AND YET they have provided some of the outstanding post war German politicians, such as the first Federal President Theodor Heuss, former Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister, Walter Scheel and Foreign Minister for many years, Hans Dietrich Genscher. It’s wonderful what PR can do!

  • @John Marriott:

    1) Denmark. I wasn’t talking about the party that actually has the word ‘Liberal’ as part of its title. You are now talking about “Liberal Alliance”, a relatively new party created by defectors from other parties. Denmark has at least three liberal parties in the parliament, first Venstre (“Left”), full name Venstre, Danmarks Liberale Parti (English: Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party). It is currently the second largest party, but was largest party 2001-2015, and provided the prime minister 2001-2019. Beside these two, there is the Radikale Venstre, literally “Radical Left”, often translated “Danish Social Liberal Party”, which is probably closest to the Lib Dems in its policies of the three. All three represent a bit different brands of liberalism, but are all members of Liberal International and Renew Europe (former ALDE) European group, just like the Lib Dems.

    2) Mark Rutte’s VVD of course represents a different brand of liberalism than the Lib Dems, but it is still liberal, and member of the same international and European organisations than the Lib Dems. Probably the smaller D66 party represents more the kind of liberalism than the LDV contributors would like.

    3) Belgium of course has separate parties for the Dutch and French speakers, but the Dutch Speaking (Open) VLD was the largest party 1999-2007, and it’s leader Guy Verhofstadt (Who came to campaign for the Lib Dems before the European elections) was the prime minister 1999-2008. Charles Michel, the leader of the French speaking liberal party MR has been prime minister of Belgium since 2014.

    Of course, all of these three countries have proportional representation, so there is room for several liberal parties representing different interpretations of liberalism. UK, however, has FPTP, so if the Lib Dems want to provide the next prime minister and gather as many Remain voters as possible, they should perhaps become more accomodating for the different brands of liberalism (and social democracy) and adopt the broad church strategy. Once the Brexit had been prevented and the PR implemented, the party could return to a more orthodox approach.

  • Tony H is the fourth contributor here — and the most important I believe. He asserts two things, and poses a critical challenge: 

    “Carl Reader is right. We need to have bold policies, and just as importantly, bold, clear messages to represent them.”

    “Robert Sayer says we have some good policy papers. Yes, but with respect Robert, the voters are not interested in policy papers. We need the (excellent) content of those papers boiled down to simple memorable phrases. A penny on income tax for education; fair votes; No war in Iraq; Stop Brexit. These are the kind of policies that have worked for us in the past because we could sell them in simple clear messages.”

    “But (apart from the obvious) where are such policies now?”

    What follows in the succeeding responses is all interesting, but I think it is reasonably fair to say much of it demonstrates the justice of Tony’s observations. History, foreign comparisons, discussion of the various meanings to be derived from that slippery word ‘liberal’.

    There IS a bold idea — until fairly recently a far-out dotty idea — which the Lib Dems seem reluctant to . . .I nearly said ’embrace’, but go further and suggest ‘seriously consider’. It is, of course the radical and transformative proposal that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) should become a major part of the thinking of any progressive party. True, it does appear from time to time in these columns of LDV, and gets many responses. Some of us urge it, but many say the water is too cold. That is not true in other parties, our competitors — say, for example, Labour and the Greens.

    The Greens include UBI in their manifesto, but I don’t think they quite get it yet. And the Shadow Chancellor has very recently received a Report by a leading exponent of the idea, Prof Guy Standing. I believe we shall be left behind if we do not all read that report, and get OUR party to adopt it as a major plank very soon — and preferably in time for the lurking General Election. This is the policy for Tony H; and its time is now. The report is not short, but it is very readable — gripping, I would say. And it is much more Liberal than Left. Please all read it.

    [Basic Income as Common Dividends: Piloting a Transformative Policy
    A Report for the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer by Guy Standing May 2019]

  • Sandra Hammett 30th Jul '19 - 12:28pm

    Unfortunately Jo finds herself in a number of uncomfortable positions which pose some serious obstacles to be overcome; her vehement opposition to Corbyn, her objection to the result of the 2016 EU Ref and failure to address 2010-15.
    She talks the talk of ‘reaching out’, of ‘cooperation’ but is yet to walk the walk.
    We don’t have to change what we’ve been saying but how we say it.

    Open a dialogue with Corbyn, don’t appear in the media to say he isn’t worth talking to.
    Open a dialogue with Leave voters, understand their concerns, persuade them.
    Open a dialogue with the electorate, explain that we HAVE learnt from the past.

  • Sandra Hammett, you make three good points about Jo’s position, I think:

    Misgivings about the efficacy of a dialogue with Corbyn; she should attempt it, and be seen to.

    Discussing their reasons with Leavers. Most of our “reasons” for doing the things we do
    are unreasonable rationalisations for spontaneous action, and gut-feelings. And who is not full of gut-feelings about the pass the Tories have brought us to? Mr Gove was right about people being tired of listening to experts, and surely a large proportion of the Leavers were those tired listeners. And the LDs were among the ‘experts’. Tony H, the fourth responder above gets to the core of he matter, I think.

    As for 2010-15, I have always been puzzled, as to why we did not explain at the time that we could hardly respectably promote PR and choose to support Labour in a coalition against the party with the most votes. But we ought not to have seemed quite so keen!

  • @Martin Sorry about that, I remembered him only after I had already posted my first comment. But yes, he’s another example of a liberal prime minister.

  • Nonconformistradical,

    The links didn’t work for me, but when I got to the pages the addresses you gave were correct!

    I did know the amounts vary but I couldn’t find the figures. I now have £8,700 plus either 6 pence or 9 pence per elector for the short campaign period.

    The limit for national party expenditure is set at a figure per constituency fought, £30,000 in 2017 (£18.96 million for the whole of Great Britain).

    Why didn’t you give the figures?

    Peter Chaman,

    If a person is being paid by another body their wages are still an election expense. For their wages not to be an expense they have to be on holiday.

  • Nonconformistradical 30th Jul '19 - 5:33pm

    @Michael BG
    “Why didn’t you give the figures?”

    Because, being unsure whether or not you knew they could be found on the Electoral Commission website, I thought it no bad thing if you had a look around the site anyway – then you might not need to ask in future.

    I do not feel spoonfeeding to people factual information which can be found through a little searching on the web is always a good idea.

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