TIM WALKER meets Lib Dem leadership candidate Jo Swinson to talk about the challenges facing liberalism, coalition mistakes and… Brexit
I ask Jo Swinson why she should lead the Liberal Democrats and she takes a deep breath and manages to get it out in all of three sentences. “I’m the best person to lead the movement because I can reach out to new voters, through traditional broadcast media, where I have a high profile, and through social media, where I have a high following.
I also think I can reach out across the generations and across the country. I have cross-party relationships and a non-tribal style, which I think is exactly what we need at the moment.”
The youngest member of the House of Commons when she was first elected in 2005 at the age of just 25, Swinson still retains all of her youthful enthusiasm and energy, and, as a child of the new media age, she puts great emphasis on getting the message out by all means possible, which is what she would appear to believe gives her an edge over Sir Ed Davey, her sole rival for the top job in their party.
When I met her at her office in Westminster last week, she took great pride in listing all of her radio and television appearances since the beginning of the leadership campaign, including Politics Live, Question Time, LBC, Talk Radio, Radio 2, The Andrew Marr Show, Today (“twice”), Newsnight, Good Morning Britain, BBC Breakfast, Channel 4 News and Sky.
If there is only one thing in the world worse for any political party than being talked about, it’s not being talked about, and the Lib Dems, on a high after the EU elections and some game-changing opinion polls, are pushing hard for the BBC in particular to give Swinson and Davey the opportunity to have a proper leaders’ debate. Swinson tells me that so far the closest they are likely to come to achieving it are spots on Politics Live and/or the morning Victoria Derbyshire show.
I have to say that any encounter between the pair is unlikely to make for especially scintillating television, as, in true Lib Dem style, the contest between the two is being conducted in a determinedly civilised, if not actually chummy, way. Swinson is quick to concede that Davey is “talented” and that – given their party still has only 11 MPs – she knows, as he does, that no matter who wins, they will have to work together.
What criticism Swinson has faced so far in the contest has come not from her opponent, but, perhaps predictably, the Daily Mail. The tabloid felt the need to re-examine her role in investigating the allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards female activists that were made against Lord Rennard, a former chief executive and campaign director of the Lib Dems. I give Swinson the opportunity to put the record straight.
In difficult circumstances, she feels that she did the most she could have done. An internal inquiry found in 2014 that the claims made by various women against Rennard were “broadly credible”, but not proved beyond reasonable doubt. Rennard, for his part, apologised if he had “inadvertently encroached” upon “personal space”.
Swinson was made aware of the allegations in 2007, and she says, in retrospect, she wished she had more support from the powers-that-be in the party, in terms of addressing the issue at the time. “We were right to have changed our processes since then because they were absolutely inadequate.
“The way it worked at our party headquarters was that the complaints ended up with the chief executive, so it was obviously unsatisfactory that he should deal with a complaint against himself. He had far too much power within our party. On reflection, one thing I would do very differently now is to strongly encourage someone to make a formal written complaint at the outset, which should have happened in relation to Rennard.
“The bottom line is the women that were involved are by and large no longer members of the party and that I find really frustrating. Rennard, for his part, shows, so far as I can see, no remorse, no contrition for what happened and he remains a Lib Dem peer. That shows how badly it was handled.”
Scotland’s Sunday Mail has, meanwhile, suggested Swinson, the MP for East Dunbartonshire, has been guilty of hypocrisy because she accepted donations running into thousands of pounds from Mark Patterson, a director of a company with fracking licences, and that she voted, during the coalition years, against a moratorium on fracking.
“That is basically a cheap smear, not really based on the facts,” she counters. “I am anti-fracking. We are talking here about a donation from an individual who is a long-time supporter of the party, and not a company, and, by the way, 80% of the work that his company is involved with concerns renewable energy. I was a government minster when the fracking vote came up and it was an issue, quite simply, of collective responsibility.”
Swinson accepts that mistakes were made by the Lib Dems during the coalition years – she regrets not merely the broken pledge on tuition fees, but also having to vote for the iniquitous ‘bedroom tax’, which her party subsequently announced their intention to scrap in their 2017 general election manifesto.
Overall, however, she feels their achievements, such as same sex marriage, the green investment bank, helping people on low incomes, the pupil premium pledge, tackling payday lenders and so on, means the party has every reason to feel pride in their years in office.
It is the here and now that obviously concerns Swinson the most and heading off a disastrous no-deal Brexit will necessarily have to be her number one priority if she becomes her party’s leader. It disappoints her enormously that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn simply didn’t bother to turn up at a lot of the cross-party meetings that she attended with Sir Vince Cable to try to find a way out of the worsening chaos – “I think of him as missing in action,” she says – and now she feels the only answer to the deadlock is a People’s Vote.
Like Davey, she sees no obvious advantage in a merger with the Greens, but would be happy to welcome pro-Remain MPs from the Labour and Tory benches. I ask her if she feels impatient with them when, after three years, their positions on Brexit remain so fundamentally irreconcilable with their leaders. “I understand how they don’t want to give up on their parties. That is in many ways an admirable thing.”
I wonder if there was a single Tory leadership candidate that she could have envisaged doing business with and she says she was disappointed that Sam Gyimah, with his clear commitment to a People’s Vote, had to withdraw because he could muster so little support in his party.
“That tells you a lot about the Conservatives – that someone offering the public a chance to have their say didn’t even get past the first round,” she says. She adds that for the Conservatives the issue they had with Gyimah was primarily his stance on a People’s Vote, but she is not blasé about the challenges that black people face in public life generally and cites the abuse that Labour’s Diana Abbott has had to go through in recent years.
“I recognise that ours is still a racist country. We have not dealt with those issues as much as we would have liked to, even if there has been progress in some areas. I would hope that one day soon we could have a black leader of a political party.
“Ours should be a country where every individual has an opportunity to thrive. That is not currently the case – partly on the basis of race, gender, disability, socio-economic background, sexual orientation or whatever – and, as it is, we are probably in line for another Etonian prime minister. Quite frankly, a large number of people are still not achieving their potential in our country, and, as a liberal, I am not happy with that and want to change it.”