The Liberal Democrat MP talks to Prospect's Alex Dean about coalitions, Brexit—and cycling with Vince Cableby Alex Dean / September 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
Politics, it is often said, is too tribal. With Labour lurching to the left and the Tories speeding off in the other direction, few politicians seem able—or willing—to bridge the party divide, even when doing so is in the national interest. The same is true across the Atlantic, where at a time of great upheaval in the country Washington remains gridlocked. Fruitful collaboration is an increasingly rare thing, and party, not policy, often comes first. At least, that’s how it can seem.
Jo Swinson would have something to say about that. If you want to get things done you simply must “work with other people,” the MP for East Dunbartonshire told me during a recent chat at the Lib Dem Autumn conference in Bournemouth. This is crucial now more than ever: thanks to hard Brexit “a horrendous set of circumstances is about to unfold.” Swinson wants to stop the government in its tracks.
And she has a plan to do so. Over half an hour I was given the Swinson blueprint for a different kind of politics, doing away with the tribal Westminster norm in rather a radical way.
“It’s not like a football team, politics, like ‘your team has to win the cup,’” the 37-year-old told me. “It’s about achieving something else. Your party is not the ends. Your political party is a means to achieving something in the world.”
The Lib Dem decision to enter into a coalition in 2010 is widely viewed as weakening their electoral standing now—but coalition is the logical endpoint of working with your opponents. Would Swinson like her party to form one in future? She left the door open, stating simply: “I believe in cross-party politics.” Are coalitions a sensible form of collaboration? Here the reply was blunt: “Yes.”
The philosophy is clear—but who could Swinson work with under today’s circumstances, on an informal basis? On Brexit, which the Lib Dems fiercely oppose, “Chuka Umunna is a very easy person to work with, Anna Soubry from the Conservative Party, Stephen Gethins from the SNP.”
As for her party’s time in power, Swinson thundered across the table: “I don’t regret it. No. I’m absolutely clear that many of the big decisions [taken in government] we got absolutely right.”
Her comments will infuriate those who view the Lib Dems’ time in power as a betrayal. One coalition policy in particular has been causing heated rows of late—the decision to treble tuition fees.
Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested cutting them, while Jeremy Corbyn would scrap them altogether. Does Swinson regret her party’s role in pushing them through? The former minister made a staggering admission. Given severe budgetary constraints that she was not happy about, the party “had the right policy answer,” she said. “But we had entirely the wrong political answer, and that’s why we should have just gone back to the drawing board.”
The Lib Dems simply had too little experience of government at the time to fight the Tories effectively on the policy. “I think our inexperience in government really showed there, because had it been two or three years later, we would have had much more of an idea of what was possible. But when you start you don’t really know where the boundaries are of possibility.”
Now the Lib Dems face rather a different challenge: not handling the pressures of power, but winning it back. Swinson made clear the party’s election result in June’s general election was disappointing.
“Would I have preferred us to have more than 12 MPs? Yes, obviously I would have liked that.” Reflecting further on the result, she said: “Of course that’s not something I’m happy about, I want us to be reaching out, and securing support from a much wider group of people.”
“But,” Swinson said, “I think we did achieve what we needed to—to be back in the political game, back to being relevant, and particularly with the outcome of the election being a balanced parliament, those 12 MPs have significant influence.” The government is currently on life-support, reliant on the DUP to get its votes through, so every MP really will count.
As for Swinson, who won her seat back after losing it in 2015, “I certainly feel like I’m back doing the thing that I’m best at, and where I can make the most difference.” When the party failed to break through in June, and Tim Farron resigned amid a row over his religious faith, Swinson was the bookies’ favourite to replace him as leader. She ruled herself out, citing lack of experience.
Does she regret doing so? “No. I am very, very confident I made the right decision.”
Farron’s eventual replacement, Vince Cable, is 74. Some have alleged he is too old to be up to the job—in contrast with the youthful Swinson, who now serves as his deputy. On this point, she was forceful: “When I went to visit Vince and [his wife] Rachel, on Rachel’s farm, after the 2015 election they invited us down for the weekend… we had a lovely time, and one of the things we did was we went on bike rides. I could not keep up with Vince.” Swinson has run several marathons, but “Vince is full of energy. He is absolutely the right leader for us.”
This will be vital for the fight ahead. Earlier this month the government won its vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill. As the Article 50 clock ticks down, Brexit inches closer and closer—and the sense is growing that the government doesn’t know what it is doing.
It “is setting out an approach to Brexit which is dangerous,” Swinson said. “It really threatens the country’s prosperity and the future for people for many years to come. That’s what’s at stake here.”
It’s welcome, she continued, that the outcome of the general election “was actually that the government has less and basically they should not just be able to do whatever they like.” Regrettably, “it feels like they haven’t processed that result yet.”
Swinson is watching the Brexit negotiations in horror. “There wasn’t a plan, that’s abundantly clear, still doesn’t seem to be much of a plan, and you’ve got David Davis going into the negotiations looking pretty unprepared, Boris firing off nonsense, as per usual, and people deserve something better. Even the people who want Brexit to happen deserve something better than that.”
Furthermore, many Britons “are appalled by the fact that not only did the country vote the way it did last June but what is being proposed is a really extreme kind of Brexit… The single market is not on the table, the customs union is not on the table.” May ruled both out in her Lancaster House speech in January, and looks to be sticking to her pledge—though membership of both is possible as part of some transitional arrangement.
But what’s bad for the country may be good for Swinson’s party. Is appetite for the anti-Brexit offering picking up? “The Liberal Democrats have 105,000 members, people are joining in droves at this conference, it’s full of people who are new to the party and are reinvigorating it with that energy, that freshness, that I think stands us in very good stead to really be the party that is challenging the conservatives and this extreme Brexit.”
The plan is clear then. “We need an exit from Brexit, and we’re fighting to deliver that.” Crucially, “it is still possible.” When you think Brexit is going to be this much of a disaster, maybe working with MPs from other parties is a small price to pay for stopping it—or at least softening the blow. Perhaps the return of collaborative politics cannot come soon enough.