Lib Dems must attract centrists, says Swinson
The Liberal Democrats are struggling to attract centre-ground voters who have been politically homeless since Labour and the Conservatives shifted to the edges, the party’s new deputy leader, Jo Swinson, has said.
Though the former women and equalities minister won back her East Dunbartonshire seat from the SNP in June, Swinson said the party’s task was to show it could represent the gulf between the two. “It’s not really the zeitgeist,” she said. “There is this big yawning gap in the middle of British politics – the Conservative and Labour parties have gone to the edges. In this divided, polarised world, the pragmatic centre ground is a bit unloved.”
Swinson said convincing centrist voters – mostly EU remainers – to back her party remained a huge challenge. “We clearly haven’t been able to make that connection yet and resonate with a lot of those people.”
The former party leader Paddy Ashdown wrote in a blunt blogpost before the party’s conference in Bournemouth this weekend that the atmosphere had never been more fertile for a Lib Dem advance, but that it was failing to make the connection with those voters.
“The vast sea of people who share our beliefs find themselves voiceless and silent,” he said. “Not all of them, sadly, are Liberal Democrats or want to be.”
Ashdown said his party was no longer seen as a radical force, compared with the time when it had opposed the Iraq war and championed equal marriage. On social media and in newspaper comment pages, the suggestion for the future of liberal centrism has been to create a new party, perhaps a UK version of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, rather than a Liberal Democrat renaissance.
This year’s election, two years after the party’s most catastrophic general election, saw the Lib Dems make some patchy inroads in seats with high numbers of remain voters, including winning back Swinson’s own seat, and that of the new leader, Sir Vince Cable, in Twickenham, south-west London.
Swinson said the party needed to rediscover “radical solutions that might upset the applecart”, but intimated that her time as a business minister in the coalition government had given her some sympathy for those on the other side of the dispatch box. “My experience in government is there is a whole host of unintended consequences you have to think through,” she said. “I can’t un-know that – I find it harder now to offer simple solutions.”
She still believes there is a route for Britain to stay in the union, which she hopes will show the party ultimately on the right side of history. “Long term it is strategically right, [former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron] got that right,” she said. “But was an election in 2017 the one where that would yield the greatest electoral return? Well, clearly not. Perhaps obviously not, but it wasn’t necessarily obvious at the time. But it is our position.”
Cable won the leadership unopposed in July, but there has been speculation that the 74-year-old former business secretary will eventually hand over to his deputy. Swinson said: “I’m not going to sit here now and plot out my entire future. Four months ago I didn’t think I’d even be sitting here in parliament.”
Jo Swinson, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said her party needed to discover ‘radical solutions that might upset the applecart’