Lib Dems must at­tract cen­trists, says Swin­son

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Jes­sica El­got Po­lit­i­cal re­porter

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’

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