Jo Swinson with Nick Clegg on the last day of the campaign. Photo: Getty
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Ex-Lib Dem minister Jo Swinson: “When we went into coalition, I knew it might be impossible to win my seat”

The coalition minister who lost her Scottish seat at the election reflects on her party’s defeat.

Jo Swinson looks relaxed. When I meet her at a brasserie that recently opened under the arches in Vauxhall, she is chatting merrily to its owner, a friend of hers.

It is three weeks after she lost her seat in Scotland to the SNP. Swinson had represented East Dunbartonshire for the Lib Dems since 2005. She was a key member of the Lib Dems in government, promoted by Nick Clegg further than the other, very few, female Lib Dem MPs, to the position of Business and Women and Equalities Minister.

She was often touted as a future Secretary of State for Scotland, and even as a successor to Clegg. A future that has slipped through her fingers – at least momentarily. But she is straightforward about her desire to return to politics.

“I loved the job of being an MP for East Dunbartonshire, and so I can certainly envisage circumstances where I stand again,” she says. “But I'm not going to make that decision at this point.”

For the moment, she is enjoying being reunited with her 17-month-old son, Andrew, and her husband Duncan Hames (a former Lib Dem MP who also lost his seat in the general election).

“Part of me just wanted him to remember who I am!” she says of her son, recalling the final three weeks of her campaign when he was staying down in Hames’ constituency of Chippenham. Half way through the short campaign, Swinson handed Andrew over to Hames when she was down doing Question Time.

Having reunited in London the day after the election, she recalls them taking their son to play in the park while both “feeling zombified having not really slept properly”.

Swinson seems less exhausted now, however, and is happy to reflect on the Lib Dems’ catastrophic defeat. Perhaps this is easier for her, as she actually increased the number of votes she received (from 18,551 in 2010 to 19,926 in 2015, and only just lost by a little over 2,000 votes).

“The only silver lining is that I got a good result and it didn't feel personal, because you were losing on a night when most Liberal Democrat MPs are losing their seats, and indeed most Scottish MPs,” she says.

Yet she does point out that her party’s role as coalition partner with the Tories put her in a precarious position – although she still maintains going into government was the “right thing to do”.

“I always knew it was going to be difficult fighting a seat in Scotland having been in coalition with the Conservatives,” she admits. “And I recognised when we went into coalition it might make it impossible to win my seat.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.