Monday 23 December 2019

After Jo Swinson

Amid the chatter and analysis, British politics' bit-part actors, the Liberal Democrats, have almost entirely slid from view. This isn't to say what happened to them wasn't devastating. For a number of reasons, despite Labour's seat loss and inroads into traditional seats the result was bad but not apocalyptic for it, whereas LibDems have got to really start asking themselves searching questions.

Consider the performance. 3.7m votes, up four percentage points on 2017. And, thanks to the vagaries of First Past the Post, a net loss of one seat. Okay, that loss was Jo Swinson's welcome collapse by the slimmest of margins but a result is a result. But look more closely and there are some serious troubles. Forget for a moment the slew of defectors they took on from the other parties, in this election the party gained five but lost six, a feat mirroring what we saw in 2017 where five seats were lost despite a net gain of four. This suggests a real difficulty in putting down roots as well as their greater exposure to electoral volatility.

That however is not a natural force. Electoral volatility is the product of underlying social trends and can be stoked and exploited under the right circumstances, which Boris Johnson has just demonstrated. The truth of the matter is the LibDems could have done much better, but they fundamentally misread the situation. What they got right was how exploiting remain would, from the narrow perspective of party building, offer the opportunity of winning over Labour and Conservative voters. What they got wrong was the catastrophic execution.

The last couple of year's worth of by-elections has shown a propensity for the LibDems to take seats from the Tories more so than any other party. It was reasonable to assume those making the switch were the layer of Tory voters who were appalled at Theresa May's mishandling of Brexit, and the reckless affectations of Boris Johnson in office. Also, the 2017 election had showed Tim Farron's strategy of going after Labour voters by pretending to be more moderate lefties was a non-starter. And so after the election of Jo Swinson, a pivot to the right and treating the EU elections as a second referendum served them well. The Brexit Party was the run away winner, but picking up 16 MEPs certainly did the trick. But, at the peak of her powers, Swinson scattered the seeds of her own destruction.

The first was making the novice's error of treating the EU elections like a real election. About only a third participate, they are more likely to be older voters and, as second order elections, are the occasion for protest voting. All Swinson needed to do was look at UKIP's performance in EU elections vs parliamentary elections since gaining their first berths in Brussels back in 1999. They helped drive the Tory agenda and got the referendum to happen, but it did not translate into seats. And so we had the risky turn to hard remain, a gamble of doubling down on what netted success previously would, contrary to all evidence, cash in. The problem was simply saying that the referendum should be set aside, even if a LibDem government is never going to happen, certainly helped feed the 'metro elites want to steal your Brexit' line and contributed to firming up the Tory vote, while simultaneously presenting as illiberal and anti-democratic. There is daring, and then there is reckless.

The second big issue was how the LibDems adapted themselves to the incomers via Change UK's miserable demise, and then directly from the Tories. Here, Swinson was guided by parliamentary and not electoral politics. Given their participation in the trashing of Jeremy Corbyn and then flying the coup because, among other things, Labour Party members were no confidencing them, Swinson pushed Corbynphobia to ridiculous extremes, going as far to say she would not countenance supporting a caretaker Labour government even if it was committed to a second referendum. That was good enough to get the former CHUKa artists on board, and no doubt helped convince right wing but pro-EU Tory MPs that the LibDems were worth a punt. This, however, was not going to play out electorally. Presumably, Swinson thought her anti-Corbynism would endear her to those centre-leaning, ballpark-remainy Tory voters too. In fact, by barely saying anything about policy, apart from the dull-as-ditchwater "skills wallet" and joining in the Corbyn-is-evil pile on, the LibDems were successful in taking away a thin but significant - in some seats - layer of voters from Labour, but by adding to the cacophony they only reminded remainy Tories that Labour was their nemesis and there was only one way of seeing Corbyn off: by voting Tory.

In addition to the politics was the presentation. Good grief, the presentation. Never before in British politics has a party run such a narcissistic campaign around a figure with so very little to shout about. The reasoning was as someone barely introduced to audiences beyond the Westminster cognoscenti, a bit of flash branding was married to the totally dishonest campaigning, the party could alternately hoodwink and charm voters into backing them, that somehow the debut of Swinson decked out in anti-Corbynism, centrism, and remain would all come together in a Cleggmania repeat. It didn't work out that way. While not an incompetent performer in front of studio audiences, we had the peculiar spectacle of her having to account more for Tory policies like the bedroom tax and cuts to public services than, um, the Tories. Johnson certainly got stick for his past record and his lies, but not for the record of a party that has been in Number 10 for nearly a decade. Instead, rather than being the hope that could cut through the middle, the Tories regarded the LibDems a passing dust cart and duly left it to them to carry their refuse.

Where now then? Their strategy in tatters, their leader gone, and their raison d'etre settled for the foreseeable. Of course, it first depends on who the new leader is going to be. Ed Davey and Baroness Sal Brinton are caretaking presently, and no doubt Davey's going to have another shot. And then there is Layla Moran, whose name was floated during the last leadership contest. It was also said during this summer's silliness that she was one of several MPs open to working with Jeremy Corbyn's Labour. Obviously, what happens to the party next depends on who they select. Davey was as much signed up to the hard remain/Corbyn-sceptic/strong leader rubbish as Swinson was and, as a good Orange Book'er and former coalition minister there's unlikely to be much of a switch. The only real question is how long will he resist before taking the "short cut" of campaigning to re-join the EU than rebuilding properly.

Therefore, assuming she stands and her pragmatism goes beyond parliamentary jockeying, Moran seems better placed to begin the process of recovery. And that recovery means concentrating fire on the Tories, helping build a better relationship with Labour - whoever Jeremy's successor turns out to be - and putting the Orange Book in the bin. Her model is not Nick Clegg, nor Farron nor Swinson, but further back - the well-liked Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. They were able to build the strength of the LibDems over time by explicitly positioning themselves as part of a broad anti-Tory coalition and, when Blair was in power, a fuzzily centre leftish conscience that managed to appeal to floating Tory voters who, for whatever reason, would never countenance voting Labour. Such a move presents Labour with its own challenges, but it also does the Tories. If at the next election the Tories are going to be dumped out of office, that means Labour does the heavy lifting but the LibDems also have their own part to play.

The question is now we face up to four or five wasted years of climate inaction, economic stagnation, attacks on working people, and the scapegoating of minorities, will the Liberal Democrats step up to the plate?


Dipper said...

"The question is now we face up to four or five wasted years of climate inaction, economic stagnation, attacks on working people, and the scapegoating of minorities"

1. I look forward to the Lib Dems, or any party for that matter, coming up with a plan to make China and India cut emissions. But leaving that aside, Boris has said this government will cut emissions, so lets see...

2. Tying yourself to a moribund economic bloc does not seem an ideal policy for ending economic stagnation

3. Attacks on working people - under this government real wages have started to rise. I expect to see more. And I expect to see this government restrict low-wage immigration and hence give low wage and unskilled Britons more bargaining power.

4. Scape-goating minorities? We have an Asian-origin home secretary and minorities throughout government. Perhaps an end to special pleading.

Seriously, the problem for the Lib dems and centrist Labour is they have tied their mast to the EU. If we are get a decent deal and it isn't a disaster then these folks have no credibility. They are all history. It was an obvious mistake, and they walked straight into it.

And if you want to be taken seriously beyond your immediate social circle, trotting out tired old cliches about how bad your opponents are won't work. You folks got an absolute pasting. You need to spend some time accepting the size of your defeat and having the humility to understand that this was your mistake not the electorate's mistake. alternatively you can just rant away for the next five years about MSM, Boris, racists blah blah and I'll be back in 5 years time wearing my 'I told you so' tee shirt and drinking (more) champagne

Anonymous said...

One question is this: is it in Labour's interest for the Libdems to continue to exist as a political force? I've tactically voted libdem in the past. But it seems to me that especially now there are so few Libdem MPs, the good they do in taking a few tory seats could well be outweight by causing us to lose in Labour/Tory marginals.
Of course, it's natural for Labour activists to campaign mostly against the Tories. But suppose Labour sent extra activists against LD MPs, and they lost their footing in Parliament. Even at the cost of a few extra Tory MPs, over time this may well pay off as their vote dropped off elsewhere.

Not really sure how to do the stats to prove this case, though. It depends how long it would take for LDs to seem like a pointless vote at the national level. More than one election in which they didn't get any MPs,is my guess.

Boffy said...

The Liberals could potentially have acted as magnet for Tory and Labour MP's defecting, nut Swinson was so convinced the Liberals could do it alone that they blocked off such a split from happening.

The Liberals did pick up Tory votes. The problem was not that you describe, but that to be effective in winning over Tory Remainers they had to show the potential that the Tories could lose the election. That required an unspoken if not open deal between the Liberals and Labour. Labour would not agree to the latter, but Tory voters are smart enough to know that after an election, a sizeable number of Liberal MP's could constrain Corbyn, if not join with Labour MP's, and Remainer Tories to form a National Government.

Swinson's fantasy politics and continual attacks on Labour and Corbyn made that seem an impossibility. It was never credible, and as it was never credible the Liberals standing in the polls continued to drop. More and more, it became clear that the only way to stop a Johnson government, to stop Brexit, was a vote for Labour, and most Tory Remainers simply were not prepared to do that. It would have been the worst of both worlds for them, a Labour government without Liberal constraint on it.

If Swinson had not gone all oyut against Corbyn, she could have left the door open to withdraw Liberal candidates in places like Canterbury, Kensington etc, where labour had the best shot. Then as McDonnell said, even if Labour could not be seen to be actually reciprocating in other seats where the Liberals had the best chance a prolonged period in which Labour had made clear that obviously it expected that many labour voters would vote tactically to stop the Tories would have seen the Liberal standing in a series of Try-Liberal marginals rise, and the subsequent bandwagon would have drawn across Tory Remainers in those seats too.

The facts are clear that around 54% of the vote went to Remain supporting parties, and only 46% to the Brexit supporting parties, but as I predicted the Tories monopolised the latter, whilst Labour confused a large part of the former, and split what their was of it with the Liberals, Greens, and Plaid (it was never going to beat the SNP on this ground in this election) meaning that the Tories were bound to win handsomely.

Blame for the Tories win, as I wrote months ago, rests primarily with Corbyn and his Stalinoid economic nationalist ideology, and with all those that promoted the reactionary and unprincipled stance that the referendum result had to be "respected". Those responsible for that position are now making matters worse by doubling down on the myth that labour lost because it was in some way not brexity enough! But blame also rests with the Liberals, who I also wrote months ago were once again typically showing that despite all of their claims they put their own sectarian interests for party building above stopping Brexit.

Its fitting that both have suffered even in terms of the electoral standing they placed above the advocacy of principle.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the analysis above. Jo Swinson went with her heart and not with her brain, and lost out. She had to plan to beat the Tories and strategise, but she failed miserably, probably badly advised by labour deserters.

Anonymous said...

Trotting out tired old clich├ęs about how bad your opponents are was the Conservative's main electoral strategy and it didn't do them any harm.

Speedy said...

Dipper, Boris was a 'lucky' general knocking against an open door at the Corbyn residence. On one hand it is tempting to say it was an unearned victory the opposition was so weak, on the other an historical inevitability - the structural problems of the UK embodied in Johnson and Cameron, both Eton chancers, led to the UK's inevitable break up and decline. Admittedly not overnight but cone back in 5 years and there should be sufficient signs, if you will see them.

Let's measure them by these 5 categories (if we are still both about) and see.

Unknown said...

Actually, the biggest mistake Jo Swinson made was treating Democracy with disdain; turning her nose up at the working class, and refusing to accept the result of a referendum. Should she make Prime Minister, she affirmed, she would cancel Brexit with the stroke of a pen. No wonder the last time the Liberals formed a majority government kids were stuck up chimneys, working.

Unknown said...

We can well do with out Jo in parliament OK

George Carty said...

The Tory landslide in this election owed less to the Remain vote being split and more to the geographic distribution of Leave and Remain voters, which meant that even though Leavers are (probably) now a minority of the voters, they were still a majority of voters in a majority of constituencies (as Remainers are concentrated in cities).

Boffy is grossly misguided if he thinks that a Hard Remain stance on Labour's part would have saved the Red Wall (although a more specific clampdown on anti-FoM elements like Len McCluskey may have helped) – the actual fatal weakness of Corbyn there was his historic passion for anti-imperialist causes (especially Palestine and United Ireland). These were not important in 2017, but they were in 2019 when the right-wing propaganda machine had had two extra years to do its work (both in the traditional media and on Facebook) and were especially toxic in areas like the North East which had an above-average number of servicemen.

Since this was about Corbyn's history rather than his current positioning, the only measure that Labour could have taken to counter this would be to switch to a leader without this baggage (which was unlikely after the better-than-expected result of 2017). And if the historically-Eurosceptic Corbyn had attempted to go Hard Remain for this election, that would have made it even easier for the Tories to portray him as both anti-patriotic and hypocritical.

You may also be interested in a Twitter thread by a working-class voter from Barnsley, describing how he was the only one of his family to vote Labour this month: all the others were radicalized by right-wing propaganda and ended up voting for the Tories or the Brexit Party.