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5 November 2019

Five things we learned from the Liberal Democrats’ campaign launch

Brexit will be merged into a larger question of identity politics and Swinson is aiming to find her inner Obama.

By George Grylls

Brexit is a question of identity…

The Liberal Democrats will appeal to hearts and not minds in this election. The rational arguments for remaining in the EU will be left to the think-tanks and forecasters. The Brexit debate will be merged into a larger question of identity politics.

The Liberal Democrats, whose campaign launch featured speeches by two women in Luciana Berger and leader Jo Swinson, hope to frame the debate as a battle between “liberalism and authoritarianism”.

Swinson will sell her party as the natural home of feminists, LGBT activists and anti-racists. It is worth noting that before defections changed the make-up of the party, this message might have fallen on deaf ears. For example, a year ago there were no black or minority ethnic Lib Dem MPs. The decision by Antoinette Sandbach to join the Lib Dems last week marked a helpful turning point; exactly half the Lib Dems’ current MPs are women. 

….but we will be asked to remember one figure

£50bn. It will be hard to forget this number. It will be repeated again and again.

The Liberal Democrats will fight this election with a campaign that is the exact inversion of Dominic Cummings’s successful Vote Leave strategy in 2016. The referendum was fought on the basis of identity, with one figure rammed down the electorate’s throat. The Liberal Democrats will do exactly the same, albeit from the opposite side of the debate.

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The £350m a week for the NHS was a lie. The Liberal Democrats hope their promise of a £50bn “Brexit bonus” will prove a little more trustworthy.

It will not be Labour and the Tories, it will be Boris and Jez

The Lib Dems reckon that their target voters are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the leaders of the two main parties. Following her earlier accusations of sexism against ITV, Swinson referred to the proposed showdown between Johnson and Corbyn on November 19th as a “debate between two men.” By comparison, Swinson called herself a “girly swot”.

Boris Johnson will come under attack for his “attitude to women” and will be likened to Donald Trump. Jeremy Corbyn meanwhile is a closet Brexiteer who has “prevaricated on the biggest issue of the day,” and failed to get to grips with anti-Semitism. Swinson hopes to sneak through the middle.

The gloves are off in Scotland

While Labour might entertain the possibility of a second independence referendum in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats will campaign for the union.

“I believe we are stronger as four nations working together,” said Swinson, who lost her own seat of East Dunbartonshire to the SNP in 2015.

Over the past few months, necessity has forced the Lib Dems and the SNP to work together. But as recently as 2015, there were 11 Lib Dem MPs in Scotland. With marginals like North East Fife and Ross, Skye and Lochaber up for grabs, the two largest Remain parties will slog it out over the question of Scottish independence.


We have heard this one before. Ever since Barack Obama won the US presidency in 2008, he has had no shortage of international imitators. Swinson harked back to Obama with her repeated promises for “change”.

Asked to identify a precedent for such a small party sweeping to power, Swinson pointed to the Liberals’ election victory in Canada in 2015, when Justin Trudeau won a landslide despite beginning the campaign as the third-largest party (in the Canadian election a couple of weeks ago, the Liberals did not have quite such a good night).

This is the international context in which Swinson wants to position herself  an English answer to Trudeau and Macron, the inheritors of Obama.