The SNP and Tories riding high in the polls as Lib Dems squeezed - but could Swinson's East Dunbartonshire constituency fall to a rival?
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson helps make a chicken tikka masala during a visit to the Ashoka restaurant in Bearsden, Glasgow, during the general election campaign.
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson helps make a chicken tikka masala during a visit to the Ashoka restaurant in Bearsden, Glasgow, during the general election campaign.
PA Wire/PA Images

Sporting a pinny, a bright blue hairnet and a smile, Jo Swinson is rustling up some onion bhajis at a curry shop in Glasgow as TV cameras follow her around the kitchen.

The exceedingly naff photo opportunity is one of many the Lib Dem leader has gamely volunteered for during the general election campaign, as her party tries once again to re-establish itself as a major force in British politics.

The Lib Dems have put the 39-year-old front and centre of a highly pro-Remain offer to voters, with Swinson vowing to revoke Article 50 and ambitiously casting herself as “the UK’s next prime minister”.

But far from capitalising on the Brexit crisis, the strategy appears to be backfiring with Swinson’s party floundering in the polls.

The YouGov MRP poll, which in 2017 accurately predicted the election outcome, on Thursday showed the Lib Dems winning 14 seats - a figure that would represent just one extra MP.

It followed a disastrous Ipsos Mori poll on November 27, which itself came on the heels of Swinson’s appearance in the high-profile BBC Question Time debate, and showed 49% of British adults were unfavourable to the Lib Dems (up from 42% last week).

And the news for Swinson was even worse. The IM poll showed 50% were unfavourable towards her as leader, a figure up from 41% a week ago.

But while all this plays out on the national stage, how is it being interpreted in here in Swinson’s own back yard?

Swinson lost the marginal Scottish seat to the SNP’s John Nicolson in 2015 in the wake of the independence referendum, but regained it in 2017 with a 5,339 majority.

Now, in an election dominated by the Tories and a possible Labour-SNP pact, is the Lib Dem vote facing the same squeeze here as it is nationally? And what do residents think of Swinson, who was born here, as their local representative?

In the high street of leafy Bearsden, close to the Ashoka curry house, people are split.

Catriona Gilchrist, a 52-year-old staff nurse from Kirkintilloch, has previously voted SNP but now plans to vote Conservative.

“I won’t be voting for Jo, that is for sure,” she told HuffPost UK. “I don’t trust her and that’s because of her stance on Brexit.

“I’m going to vote Tory. Boris Johnson says it like it is. He is the best of a bad bunch.

“I just feel like she has gone with what people want to hear. There is no way she will ever be prime minister – that is never going to happen in a million years.

″My hackles go right up when I see her on the TV.”

The Lib Dem leader is predicted to hold East Dunbartonshire, but she faces a strong challenge from the SNP’s Amy Callaghan.

Nicola Sturgeon campaigns with SNP candidate for East Dunbartonshire, Amy Callaghan, and young activists, in the seat currently held by the leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson.
Nicola Sturgeon campaigns with SNP candidate for East Dunbartonshire, Amy Callaghan, and young activists, in the seat currently held by the leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson.
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

The SNP has absorbed much of the Labour vote north of the border and, while the Tory candidate in East Dunbartonshire is not viewed as a serious threat to Swinson, Boris Johnson’s party is enjoying a bounce in the polls in Scotland, despite Brexit.

Charlotte Todds, an 18-year-old student from Bishopbriggs, is not sure who to vote for, but is against Brexit.

“I would probably vote for Jo if she could stop Brexit but I also want Scottish independence so I’m not sure what to do,” she said. “I probably need to look into it.”

Phyl Wright, a 66-year-old retired administrator and novelist, planned to back Sturgeon and is still angry with Swinson’s role in coalition with David Cameron’s Conservative party.

“I have looked at Jo Swinson’s voting record and I absolutely will not be voting for her,” she said. “She has voted so often with the Tories, like for austerity and the bedroom tax and against more money for welfare. I think her voting record is a disgrace.

“Her policy on Brexit is fair enough, because I would really rather Brexit wasn’t happening. It’s so important that we have another vote.”

Wright also complained that Swinson, who is campaigning across the country failed to turn up to a local hustings.

“She comes across as a bit screamy – and I hate saying that about women and I totally object to the way men use that type of language – but I think she can come across as very aggressive, a bit like a school headmistress,” she added.

But many others were supportive of Swinson’s pro-Union stance against the SNP and saw her as best placed to push for Remain.

Geraldine Dillon, 39, who owns Cafe Creme in Bearsden with her two sisters, also praised Swinson’s role as her local MP, adding: “We have been in business for eight years and Jo has always been fantastic with us. We can certainly say that she walks the walk and I’m swayed by that.

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson speaks on stage at the launch of her party's general election manifesto in London, November 20.
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson speaks on stage at the launch of her party's general election manifesto in London, November 20.

“There are issues at a local level that people are annoyed about – like parking – and she takes the brunt of that and people say things like ‘you are always down in London’. It’s a shame people can’t be more supportive and be happy that she has done so well.

“A lot of people are saying they are thinking about going for the Tories, but I think if she had been a man a lot of people would just be getting behind her.”

Michael Laverty, a 50-year-old shop manager, also from Bearsden, was undecided.

He said: “I voted Remain but we live in a democracy. We should leave, just like how we voted to stay in the Union.

“What if a second referendum just returns the same result? Our MPs are supposed to do what we ask them to. Let’s just do something and get it over with.

“I think generally everyone is fed up of politics at the moment.”

Margot Bevis, 44, operations manager for a tech company, was backing Swinson, saying the leader had helped save her children’s primary school from closure by the council.

“I have had enough of Brexit – it just dominated the news for years – but I am a little bit torn,” she said. “The population of the UK voted to leave and my first instinct is to go with that because it’s democratic, but Brexit really hasn’t worked.

“The option here is the Lib Dem or the SNP and I don’t want another independence situation.

“I think she is a good local representative and the leap to being a big national figure is a big one for anyone to take. I think her credibility is still a work in progress.

“I think she has principles and she stands by them and that is a rare trait to have – and that’s why I will be supporting her.”

Meanwhile in the largely working-class town of Kirkintilloch, where support for independence is much greater, Swinson was markedly less popular.

Bill Inglis, a 65-year-old retired police officer from Kirkintilloch, will be voting for the SNP.

“I am hoping most people in Scotland will be doing the same and hopefully that will progress in two or three years’ time into us being an independent nation,” he said. “I think Jo is fine as far as Brexit is concerned, but she has never said she would do anything for the WASPI women and that matters to me and my wife.”

Brian Donachy, a 70-year-old consultant also from Kirkintilloch, will also back the SNP.

He said: “Corbyn is a disaster and Johnson is a disaster. It’s like a choice between going back to the 1970s or back to the 1930s.

“I think we are in for bad times and the quicker we leave England the better.

“I have no problems with Jo, she is better than the other two male party leaders, but she isn’t doing too well, is she?

“A lot of people have seen more of her and don’t like her, and I don’t know why that is. I think some of it is her declaring that she is going to be the next prime minister – I think that was a bit silly. I think the policy to revoke Article 50 was extreme too and I say that as a Remainer.”

Callaghan, a 27-year-old charity worker, told HuffPost UK she was hopeful of victory, adding: “I’m sitting here now telling you I can win.”

She was keen to cast the SNP as “the strongest pro-Remain party” but Swinson is quietly confident she can hang on.

Asked if her revoke Article 50 policy could damage the party, she said: “No, to be honest, we have been very clear. The Lib Dems want to stop Brexit, we’ve not exactly been hiding that fact.”

She also addressed claims from residents that she was not in East Dunbartonshire enough, saying: “I do [think I am here enough].

“Clearly in this general election I am leader of the Liberal Democrats so I am fighting right across the country, but when I was doing my summer tour at the end of August there were people saying to me ‘surely you should be off somewhere stopping Brexit’ but I was doing that too.

“It’s two different jobs being the local MP, as I was and hope to be again, and leading the party, but I think there are a lot of people locally who like the fact their local community representative is playing a role on the national stage too.”

She underlined that the Tories and Labour were devoting most of the resources to seats they could lose to the SNP, while the Lib Dems were hopeful of taking North East Fife and their late former leader Charles Kennedy’s seat, Ross Skye and Lochaber, from the SNP.

Swinson added she was “taking no vote for granted” but as this Brexit-dominated and turbulent campaign reaches the final furlong, she may be haunted by the words of her predecessor Kennedy, when he was once asked about his own future in frontline politics: “The one thing we can all be sure about in politics is you are as well to expect the unexpected.”


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