Political itinerant and, latterly, Liberal Democrat member TIM WALKER on why the election of Jo Swinson to the party’s leadership fills him with optimism
Jo Swinson was barely three minutes into her victory speech when I realised I’d already heard more conviction and good sense than Jeremy Corbyn had managed in the three long years since the EU referendum. The new 39-year-old Liberal Democrat leader’s words came not from a group of shadowy advisers or focus groups, but from the heart and occasionally her voice broke with emotion, most notably when she talked about Nigel Farage boasting, just eight days after the murder of Jo Cox, how the EU referendum had been won “without a single bullet being fired”. Her verdict? “It was crass and insensitive, but Farage just didn’t care.”
I can’t ever recall Corbyn so much as uttering Farage’s name, still less criticising him, but here was a politician prepared to take him on. Swinson clearly understands that in politics you don’t always do things just because you have to, but because you can and because you feel instinctively that they are right, and that is as good a definition of leadership as any.
Swinson acknowledged that there is a Britain out there that has for too long been denied a voice in our politics and that yearns to see an end to the hatreds based on race and religion, that recognises the old have too much of an advantage over the young and the rich over the poor and are dismayed at the obsequiousness that Boris Johnson has already shown towards Donald Trump. Above all, this Britain now yearns to put an end to Brexit and wants to get on with addressing the serious challenges of inequality and globalism and healing a divided and demoralised kingdom.
I felt a connection to Swinson I had not felt with a political leader in years, and I dare say a large swathe of the population did, too, irrespective of what political parties they may have voted for in the past.
In her speech, Swinson used the word ‘liberal’ repeatedly and unapologetically and there is no question that there is a fundamentally decent majority out there that yearns to pass on to future generations a world that is in better shape than it found it, and that of course means addressing, too, the issue of climate change.
It was hard not to think in that hot and crowded room in a Westminster office block, where her victory was announced on Monday, in heady terms of a baton being handed to a new generation, and, indeed, Swinson is the first political leader to have been born in the 1980s.
If she made me feel old, I can only imagine how it made Corbyn feel. If this was his first glimpse of the future, it clearly alarmed the Labour leader and barely seconds after Swinson’s election his army of malignant bots were doing their worst on Twitter.
What Corbyn can’t see is that his own voters are giving up on Labour precisely because of the nastiness, and they can’t see, too, that the Lib Dems have become a new kind of party.
At their conferences in recent years I have seen youthful, intelligent and articulate members that had almost all joined after the vote to leave the EU, and, disillusioned with the old system, they want to fashion for themselves a party that is fit for purpose.
Swinson rightly found time to praise her predecessor Sir Vince Cable and I found myself thinking back to a small hotel room in a cold and windy Stockport in spring last year when he had made the bold prediction to me that the Lib Dems were about to come back.
The party was then polling barely 9%, but the old campaigner remembered 1997 as the breakthrough year for the party that saw their ratings – and number of MPs – double in the election that followed and he confidently predicted that was about to happen once again.
No one took much notice at the time – I was one of only a small handful of journalists who had bothered to cover the party’s spring conference – but Sir Vince turned out to be right. He was right, too, that the British people were not temperamentally or historically given to backing pop-up political parties, as the Change UK party was later to find to its cost.
The Lib Dems are now of course, routinely polling 20% and sometimes they are even ahead of all the other parties. The leadership contest received scant airtime – the party had to literally beg the BBC to allow Swinson to debate with her rival Sir Ed Davey – which seems, to say the least, remiss given that they are likely to be formidable power-brokers in the months ahead. Swinson’s claim that they could form a government cannot, in these febrile and unpredictable times, by any means be discounted.
I subjected both Swinson and her only rival Sir Ed to some tough questioning for The New European, but I could see immediately they both offered a lot more hope than any of their rivals in the Tory contest. Economic literacy: tick. Social responsibility: tick. A plan for the future that made some sense: tick. No intention to wilfully degrade the life chances of every citizen: tick.
Neither had the resources and machinery of the party of government behind them and had to organise their gruelling itineraries with just a few underpaid and overworked staff to make sure they showed up, briefed and spruce, at more than 20 hustings events across the country, undertook endless other media interviews, meets-and-greets, put in the necessary hours on telephone canvassing and social media and got their speeches written on time, plus all the leaflets and the letters and emails.
For all the pressure upon them, it was a contest where neither candidate ever turned negative, there were no grubby behind-the-scenes domestic incidents and no gaffes, and, from their first hustings – provocatively held in Corbyn’s own Islington North constituency – their tone towards each other was civil and respectful.
The Lib Dems alone give me hope for the future of this country and I have no doubt Swinson will galvanise their poll ratings still more. I write all of this as a political itinerant who agreed three years ago to go into Theresa May’s campaign office to help her defeat Andrea Leadsom, and, not long after that, was writing for David Lammy, and voted Labour in the last general election. The Lib Dems make me feel like I’ve finally arrived home, and, whatever happens now, I know I can at the very least vote for them with a clear conscience.