The first time I interviewed Jo Swinson was in September 2013. I was working for a trade-style magazine called Total Politics, which was so neutral and unthreatening that even government ministers merrily opened up to the point of making unwise and rather too honest remarks.
Swinson, who was a business and women and equalities minister at the time, did no such thing. I remember leaving the interview frustrated at the lack of anything at all juicy for my piece. In particular, her opposition to all-women shortlists, the process by which Labour has increased its number of female MPs since 1997, sticks in my mind.
At the time, five of the seven women Lib Dem MPs, including Swinson, held marginal seats and the party was also suffering in the wake of the Lord Rennard sexual harassment scandal. The Lib Dems clearly had a woman problem, and Swinson’s reluctance to back all-women shortlists — some excuse about them not being a “guarantee unless you’re a party with lots of safe seats” — didn’t ring true to me.
And so it transpired, when three years later she changed her mind. It was no small decision — she’d actively campaigned against them at a party conference in 2001 in a pink T-shirt with the slogan: “I am not a token woman”. As the Lib Dems consistently failed to increase female representation, she had gradually changed her mind.
She was probably particularly tight-lipped during my interview because at the time she was being tipped to become Scotland secretary and, even back then, Lib Dem leader. She didn’t want to lose favour with her party — nor with her Conservative coalition partners.
It’s these kinds of political realities, plus lingering ideological convictions, which drive many politician’s decisions in the moment. Voting records reflect such factors, and many now supporting the Lib Dems use this argument to excuse the sins of coalition.
Swinson voted with the 2010-15 Tory-led government to back some of the most disastrous, harmful and utterly gratuitous cuts to public spending. Her voting record is stark. The bedroom tax, the Education Maintenance Allowance cut, the public sector pay cap, disability benefit cuts, general welfare cuts, cuts to local authority funding — it’s all there.
In terms of her voting record, Swinson is no different on paper from the Conservative ministers of the time. This has led Labour and the SNP to run social media posts pointing out how complicit Swinson was in austerity. It’s a fair and tactically clever message — and an obvious angle for the Lib Dems’ left-wing opponents. There are many who could never vote for someone who was a part of inflicting misery on people’s lives for the bogus aim of “living within our means”.
Austerity isn’t just some abstract agenda consigned to political history — it’s a day-to-day reality for millions, and its effects are nowhere near an end. You can’t just dismiss it, and you shouldn’t just dismiss those who say they can’t.
Swinson has disowned some of the policies, stating that the Lib Dems should have “won battles” against the government over issues such as employment tribunal fees, that she regrets the bedroom tax, while insisting that the Lib Dems “stopped a lot of welfare cuts”. She also emphasises the compromises necessitated by coalition.
Yet in general, she defends the austerity agenda initiated in 2010. “We needed to constrain spending because of the deficit,” she told Andrew Marr last month.
It’s clear that the Lib Dems are banking on winning Labour voters over their Brexit position rather than any retrospective opposition to austerity. And don’t forget, they’re courting Tory voters, too, of course. What’s clear is that Swinson has shown no sign of an epiphany on spending cuts akin to that U-turn on all-women shortlists.
If it’s true that British politics has realigned along Leave/Remain lines, then Swinson’s strategy will have mileage — as was demonstrated by the Lib Dems’ surge in the local and European elections. And if you fear a no-deal Brexit will only exacerbate austerity then perhaps you could stomach the most unequivocally anti-Brexit party, whatever their leader’s voting record.
If you’re anti-austerity but wish to vote Lib Dem, those are the justifications that make sense — far more so than arguing that austerity is a thing of the past, or suggesting Swinson has changed her mind about it.