Can Jo Swinson win back East Dunbartonshire for the Lib Dems?

A former Liberal Democrat prodigy tries to reverse the Scottish National Party's gains. 

NS

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Back at Jo Swinson’s campaign HQ, after a soggy couple of hours on the doorsteps of East Dunbartonshire, there is one question that has to be asked: just how big was the school she went to?

At every door we knocked, either the respondent or their offspring seems to have been at school with the former equalities minister.

Swinson laughs: “They might not all have actually been in my year. At Douglas Academy there must have been about 1,000 pupils there at any one time. But this is the sort of constituency where people move here for the schools, and then they stay. And when you’ve been the MP, some people will remember you.”

The Liberal Democrat candidate is happy to play on her personal connection to the constituency where she was raised. This election has come so soon after the last one, at which Swinson lost the seat to the SNP, that she can run on her record. She had a reputation as a hard-working local representative, and voters seem to have retained a remarkable fondness for her. One young mum I encounter confirms Swinson has her vote, and then adds: “I feel connected to you. We’ve missed you.”

Another supporter admits that Swinson's personality is swaying her choice. She dismisses sitting MP John Nicolson – “I don’t like him. Jo did more for us” – before turning to Swinson and softly saying: “I’m so glad you’re back.”

It’s impossible to tell if there are tears in Swinson’s eyes as she steps away from the doorstep, or just drops from the relentless rain. “When you’ve lost your seat and you know you worked hard, you know it’s not personal," she says. "But still it’s nice when people actually say stuff like that and confirm it.”

Her personality won’t win her the seat, however. One voter steps away from polishing his golf clubs to tell her: “Some of my Conservative friends will be voting for you. But I personally can’t bring myself to vote Liberal Democrat.”

And her long history with East Dunbartonshire doesn’t always work in her favour. One angry drinker outside the Talbot Arms in the centre of Milngavie (it’s pronounced Mul-guy) tells me: “She was a cow at school and she’s a cow now.” Which seems a bit harsh. But then he’ll be voting for John Nicolson because he supports independence.

Another patron, who has seized a break in the downpour to have a fag, will be voting for Swinson because she doesn’t. “I don’t like independence,” he counters. “We couldn’t survive it. The SNP say we’d have this, that and the other but it’s nonsense.”

In Scottish politics some things are the same, some things change. Independence is the number one issue on the doorstep again. 

A friendly elderly couple tell Swinson she’s got their vote because she’s anti-independence. “She’s a good candidate, she’s worked hard,” they smile. “But mainly we’re voting for her because of independence. We’re not necessarily Lib Dem voters. If Jo wasn’t standing we’d vote for whichever party was best to stop the SNP.”

To that end, there is an information war taking place. The SNP are talking up the Tories in the hope they can split the unionist vote and let Nicolson win again. His majority of just over 2,000 is one of the smallest among the Nats, who all but swept the board in Scotland in 2015. The Lib Dems are convinced that had the Conservatives soft-pedalled back then, they could have won over more voters and kept Swinson in. 

What has changed in those two years is that the unionist vote has become more organised. Swinson claims the Tories are backing off this time, despite a strong showing at last month’s local elections. Certainly, driving through the constituency, the signs of support are for either Swinson or Nicolson.

She is confident she can take back the seat she first won in 2005 from Labour, off the back of the fallout from the Iraq war. “I wasn’t able to corral votes to stop Labour in 2005 like I’ve been able to corral votes to stop the SNP at this election," she says. “Two years ago people hadn’t experienced what it’s like having 56 of the 59 Scottish seats represented by the SNP and how that feels like a one-party state. That’s uncomfortable for the 55 per cent of people who don’t back them. You saw in the 2016 Scottish elections, people got savvy and we saw some pretty sophisticated tactical voting.”

An SNP source admits their campaign is worried  – describing Nicolson as “at high-doh” – but still confident. But even a visit from Nicola Sturgeon only serves to shore up the SNP vote these days, rather than win new supporters.

Something else that’s changed in Scottish politics is the First Minister’s magic touch. Her decision to call for a second independence referendum has hardened the unionist vote. Back at the Talbot Arms, another drinker adds: “I don’t like Nicola Sturgeon. We don’t need another referendum now. Turns out she’s just Alex Salmond version 2.0.”

Nicolson himself said of the campaign: "It's going well, I think we'll win." He is enjoying chats on the doorstep, and says Brexit is a big issue. But he's very keen to talk about the Tories. "It's interesting to see the Tory surge, I think that's something that's recognised across the country.

"Most people expect we'll win, Electoral Calculus has the Tories coming second."

He says he has "no sense of Lib Dem momentum" – although he's keen to kick the very Lib Dem campaign he thinks is failing: "I'm picking up a great deal of irritation with this deluge of materials they are sending to voters."

Swinson, on the other hand, says she’s heard some strong words used to describe Sturgeon on the doorsteps. “It’s like Nick Clegg in 2010. You don’t want to get too popular or there’s only one direction to go.”

Mentioning Clegg brings up another issue that still matters two years on. A handful of voters say they can’t back Swinson because of her time in the Coalition government, when she served as a junior business minister and took on the equalities brief (which she used to steer through the landmark legislation that brought in shared parental leave).

“It still comes up,” she admits. “And I defend it. I think it was the right decision to go into coalition.

"This election has shown what I think would have happened if we hadn’t formed the coalition. The Tories would have called an election at a time of their choosing and we’d have got a majority Tory government instead.”

Brexit is brought up by just one person – Jo Swinson herself. She’s the only one talking about it on the doorsteps, partly to gather information on which way constituents voted but also as a ploy to find a point of agreement with SNP voters.

Conversations while out canvassing are civil. The Scottish electorate remains engaged in the wake of the independence referendum. While East Dunbartonshire is only 20 minutes from the centre of Glasgow by train, culturally it’s significantly further away from No Mean City.

Back at Swinson's HQ on a small industrial estate, volunteers from as far afield as London and Holland are stuffing envelopes and plotting out the last few days of campaigning.

An MP since the age of 25, she is in her element. She admits she’ll be gutted if she loses again on Thursday night. She insists East Dunbartonshire will be one of a number of Lib Dem gains this week.

And there’s an odd upside to losing last time: “There’s something exciting about a seat you’re trying to win," she says. "There’s a buzz and an excitement, it’s fun being part of something that would be a gain. We’ve got a momentum we didn’t have last time.”

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is the author of The Gender Agenda and Dads Don’t Babysit