Jo Swinson: This General Election 'Isn't A Popularity Contest'

The Lib Dem leader remains defiant in the face of a poll squeeze one week from election day.

“It’s been a really good buzz,” Jo Swinson says of the campaign, speaking to HuffPost UK 24 hours before a man dressed as a bee glues himself to her battle bus.

“There is a real energised feel to activists out and about across the country.”

But despite the initial high expectations, the Lib Dem general election does not appear to be going exactly to plan. Squeezed in the national polls by Labour and the Conservatives, Swinson has pivoted sharply away from the claim she could become prime minister leading “hundreds” of MPs. Instead the party is now making the case that only it can prevent a Tory majority by winning a key set of marginals.

With one week to go to polling day, the Lib Dem leader admits the Brexit Party’s decision to stand down candidates in Tory seats to avoid splitting the Leave vote fundamentally changed the dynamic of the campaign.

“Clearly we had looked at lots of polling data,” Swinson says of the downgraded ambition. “The scenario of a four-party fight in a first-past-the-post system is one where there is huge volatility and where absolutely anything is possible.

“The deal that has been done between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage has a pretty big impact.”

The Lib Dems are now targeting a set of seats including St Albans, Richmond Park, Finchley and Golders Green, and Cities of London and Westminster. The party is also hoping to cause an upset in Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton with a 2019 “Portillo moment” by ousting the foreign secretary.

“There are lots of good reasons to believe [that] in the seats where we are competitive, we are making real progress,” Swinson argues. “We are still the party that is well placed to win many seats from the Conservatives.

“So people worried about Boris Johnson getting a majority, about a man like that have having free rein, unchecked power, then the Lib Dems are the party that can stop him having that.”

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson on the party's election campaign bus
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson on the party's election campaign bus
Aaron Chown - PA Images via Getty Images

At the start of October, YouGov had the Lib Dems on 23% in the polls, in second place ahead of Labour. By December 3 the same survey had seen the party drop down to 12%. Last week’s MRP model, which accurately forecast the hung parliament in 2017, suggested the Tories were on course for a majority while the Lib Dems would pick up just one more seat.

“I don’t think that that captures the reality on the ground,” Swinson says of the projection. “We know there are seats [where] we have seen data that is much more positive than those predictions.”

The MRP analysis, Swinson says, did show the “broad direction of travel” of the campaign. “That’s why a lot of people are worried about a Boris Johnson majority but it also shows why the Lib Dems are in first or second place in 134 constituencies.

“We are the party that is able to make gains and to win because we are making progress in this election compared to the last election. Whereas Labour are going backwards.”

She adds: “There are also seats, frankly, we have never particularly campaigned in for a general election with a view to being in with a chance of winning. There are lots of places that are now very, very fertile ground for Lib Dems.”

Jo Swinson during the launch of her party's manifesto at FEST, Stables Market, in Camden
Jo Swinson during the launch of her party's manifesto at FEST, Stables Market, in Camden
Yui Mok - PA Images via Getty Images

Swinson has ruled out doing any deals with the current Tory and Labour leaders should she find herself as kingmaker on the morning of December 13. “We are not going to put Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn into No.10,” she repeats. “I don’t think either of those men is fit for that job.”

But this pledge does not apply if either party ditches its leader following a poor result. “It’s up to them to work out what they do. It’s not uncommon for that to happen immediately after an election if somebody has taken their party backwards,” she says.

“Who knows who will be leading those parties in a couple of weeks’ time?”

The Lib Dems, of course, want to stop Brexit. The party has installed countdown clocks in its party HQ to remind staff “how little time is left”.

But the policy of revoking Article 50 should the party win a majority has been blamed by some for its dip in the polls. Swinson is adamant it was not a mistake.

“No, I think it was honest,” she says. “At the end of the day Lib Dems want to stop Brexit. So what else would a Lib Dem majority government do? In that scenario we would have a democratic mandate to do so as well.

“In every other scenario we are continuing to campaign for a People’s Vote.

“I certainly don’t believe there is actually a majority in this country for any specific type of Brexit deal, or indeed a no-deal.”

Swinson says the “sensible approach” after December 12 is for a second referendum “done very quickly” on Johnson’s Brexit deal versus Remain. “That’s the most recently negotiated deal. It’s one people in the Brexit side have adopted and support,” she says.

What about a Labour Brexit deal versus Remain? “Labour don’t have a deal. Labour is really talking about unicorns,” Swinson says.

In a recent Spectator interview, Johnson claimed he had warned David Cameron “austerity was just not the right way forward” in 2010. “You know you can’t trust what Boris Johnson says,” Swinson sighs. “He voted for those policies.”

For some voters the problem with the Lib Dems since 2010 is so did they. Swinson was a minister in the coalition government. Has the public forgiven the party for its role in implementing public spending cuts? “Clearly there is a Corbynista sort of lines to take sheet which has a focus on that,” Swinson says.

“The battle that is coming is whether we are members of the EU. And frankly, whatever those Labour online outriders say about austerity, they’ve got a leader who is saying they will go and negotiate Brexit that’s going to hurt our economy, that’s going to cost jobs and it’s going to make people poorer.

“That’s not going to be any good for our public services if there is less money to invest in them. At least the Lib Dems have a proposal that’s going to enable billions of more investment rather than a fantasy wish list.”

She adds: “I have to say most people I speak to are thinking about the issues that are being decided at this election, whether it’s Brexit, whether it’s what we do about the climate emergency, and so on.”

If the 2019 election is remembered for one thing, it could be the spread of dodgy campaign tactics. The Conservatives have been repeatedly reprimanded for a disinformation campaign, including their move to rebrand the party’s Twitter account to FactcheckUK and selective editing of a video of Labour’s Keir Starmer. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, have been hauled up on their bar charts, the decision by a campaign aide to seemingly invent an email to a journalist, and for campaign leaflets that are made to look like newspapers.

On the latter, Swinson is “astonished that this is a story” given how long the party has deployed the tactic, including when she was first selected as a candidate in 2002. “This is not new. Literally not news.

“People like reading different things. We write letters. We do newsletter-type leaflets. We do newspaper-type leaflets. Because you are getting messages out to people in different ways. So I just think it’s kind of a bit of a strange criticism.:”

She adds: “It’s kind of like: ‘“Politician goes and knocks on door and speaks to voter” shocker.’ ‘“Politician puts out leaflets” shocker.’”

PA Wire/PA Images

Swinson only took over the party from Vince Cable in July when the party was riding high following its European election results. In the following months the party was bolstered by a series of defections from Labour and the Tories.

“I am literally still building my team,” Swinson says. “It certainly feels like it’s quick to be having a general election. I don’t think any of my predecessors had a general election anything like as soon.”

Tim Farron, who led the party into the 2017 election, has been on hand to offer advice. As has Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister who now works as a lobbyist for Facebook. “I had a chat with Nick,” Swinson says. “He’s obviously quite busy.

“He’s someone who has lived it and done it. And there are not that many people who have.

“We’ve chatted. We had a really good chat face-to-face. He’s in America and there’s a whole time difference. But when he was over for Paddy’s [Ashdown] memorial service in September we had a really good conversation. We have chatted since.

“Because of the time difference we don’t speak all that often. And therefore it’s normally about what is happening in the Lib Dems rather than Facebook.”

She adds of Clegg’s new job: “We certainly will have a disagreements, I’m sure.”

The party has built its campaign largely around Swinson’s leadership: highlighting the contrast between a 39-year-old woman and Johnson and Corbyn; agitating to get her included in the TV leadership debates. But her personal ratings have taken a hit. Does that worry her?

“It’s pretty tied up with where your party poll ratings are at typically,” she says. “That’s up on 2017 very significantly.

“I am standing up for what I believe in. If people believe something different then it’s not very surprising they’re not going to like what I’m saying.

“It isn’t a popularity contest. Maybe Boris Johnson thinks it is and all that matters is winning the election. But from my perspective it’s: why do you want to win? You want to win because you want to put in place the things you care about.”

She adds: “If saying those things doesn’t increase popularity then OK, but I’m not going to start believing in and saying different things.”


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