Jo Swinson’s challenge: reconcile the two halves of the Lib Dem character

The Liberal Democrats are torn between the need for radicalism on Europe and moderation on everything else

September 13, 2019
Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images
Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

It is a curious twist of recent political history that the Liberal Democrats will fight the next election under a 39-year-old leader with more ministerial experience than the 70-year-old leader of the Labour Party. She has some; he has none. Jo Swinson was an infant when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected to parliament. Three decades later, he was still on the back benches, when she was working for the coalition government.

Corbyn's professional absence from front-bench responsibility is part of what recommends him to his supporters. He is uncontaminated by the icky trade in bodged solutions and grubby compromises that departmental politics demands. For the same reason, Swinson's stint as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Business Department is unlikely to feature prominently in her party's general election campaign. The whole coalition episode haunts the Lib Dems like a failed marriage. It didn't last long, it soured quickly and ended bitterly.

The party alienated swathes of its supporters by collaborating with the Tories. Nick Clegg believed the public would come to respect Lib Dem maturation from perpetual protest faction to grown-up party of government. That bet never paid off. Coalition brought the Lib Dems to the brink of political bankruptcy.

Their recovery comes from organisational doggedness, activist patience and a large dollop of luck. The Tories actively repelled liberal-minded pro-European voters and Labour took them for granted. Change UK, the new centrist venture by refugee MPs from the two main English parties, failed. The Lib Dems emerged as market leaders for a burgeoning anti-Brexit vote. The party surged in local council elections in May and again in the European parliamentary ballot a fortnight later. Opinion polls are not hugely reliable in such volatile times but it appears that the Lib Dems have grown their base substantially in the past year. They have also expanded their parliamentary representation, gaining six MPs since the 2017 general election; five of those were defections from other parties. Others are expected to follow. (The total is now 17.)

Another encouraging metric for Swinson is the persistent popularity of “don't know” in surveys of voters' preferred candidate for prime minister. Boris Johnson scores much higher than Corbyn, but around a third of the electorate is equally unimpressed by both. In the absence of some unprecedented electoral earthquake, the Lib Dem leader is not a contender for the top job, nor does she yet perform with the authority or charisma usually required to impress a mass audience. But when the top two items on the menu are plague and cholera, there is going to be appetite for anodyne alternatives.

But there is also a structural awkwardness in the Lib Dem position. On the conventional left-right spectrum, Swinson's advantage derives from domination of the centre. On the newer Remain-Leave spectrum, she is all the way over at one extreme. At their annual conference in Bournemouth next week, the Lib Dems will debate a policy of revoking Article 50—cancelling Brexit without the rigmarole of another referendum.

For enactment, that policy would require a Lib Dem majority in the Commons, so it is almost entirely symbolic. It has the tactical advantage of underlining the party's solid pro-EU credentials as distinct from Corbyn's endless cavilling. There is also a potential cost in making even quite ardent Remainers queasy. It is possible to hate the result of the 2016 plebiscite while also recognising it as a massive democratic moment that cannot simply be annulled.

And there is a problem of tone. The unique electoral opportunity afforded to the Lib Dems comes, in large part, because their usual rivals have been captured by ideological extremes. The antidote to that is moderation. But peremptory cancellation of Brexit is an immoderate stance, or at least it is perceived as one.

In practice, there is not much centre-ground on the question of EU membership. To prefer a softer Brexit is to recognise the strategic logic of continental integration. That leads naturally to the conclusion that current membership terms easily represent the best available deal. If the UK is to be aligned with Brussels it has to be in the room when the rules are being written, which is achieved by not leaving. Labour has tried to dodge that irreducible fact and suffered strategic torment as a result.

The tension in Swinson's position is between the need for radical definition on the European question and moderate definition on everything else. If politics is a culture war and the front is drawn on a Remain-Leave axis, the Lib Dems are the polar opposite to Nigel Farage's Brexit party. If politics is an economic choice between a Corbynite hard left and a Tory party that has been captured by its most fanatical right flank, the Lib Dems hold the centre. That tension expresses also the party's traumatic recovery from and ambivalence about coalition government. The centrist side makes a virtue of compromise and is proud to have served in government. The radical impulse remembers more fondly the pre-Clegg era of protest and purity.

Those are not competing factions within the ranks so much as rival instincts in the heads and hearts of every Lib Dem MP, member and activist. Swinson's challenge is to reconcile that tension, gaming polarisation on one axis, while resisting it on the other. It is not impossible, but nor will it be easy. She is trying to organise a moderate insurgency, which sounds paradoxical but has a certain logic according to the weird new geometry of British politics.