Monday, July 22, 2019

You Swinson, you lose some

That was quite some acceptance speech from Jo Swinson, newly elected as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Frankly, it's what the centre ground needs, a bit of fire, a bit of clarity and some ambition. The fight of their lives indeed.

I think it's entirely plausible that the collapse in the Conservative and Labour parties could lead to something dramatic happening in our politics.

There are two big challenges facing her, both of which have the potential to frustrate the upper limit of her ambitions. The first is the rallying call to stop Brexit. I think she's captured the right tone to attract the significant resistance vote there. The bigger test comes when, or if, Brexit happens, and it requires an equally forthright and passionate vision that doesn't just demand another vote, or a re-entry.

I think her election has clearly struck a certain amount of fear into Labour and Tory strategists. The British public deserve better than the smirk and the scowl. Two deeply unattractive parties, equally deeply unloved and led by divisive men.

One of the voter groups I encountered in the European election campaign, in fact who I've been close to for the last 20 years, is Steve and Sarah Wilmslow. Professional, successful, graduates, a young family, excited by being in and around metropolitan Manchester, rather than looking to rural Cheshire. A living example of dormitory democracy - you vote where you sleep, but your engagement and consciousness is awakened by where you spend the most significant time. They'll be appalled by how austerity has taken its toll on the rough sleepers in Manchester, and will have done something charitable to support them. They'll be shaken and baffled by no-deal Brexit, though would probably have accepted a quick soft version. They will be top rate tax payers, working at partner or director level, but not millionaires by any stretch. These were my core readers when I was editor of Insider and I think these types of voters in Tatton and Macclesfield will desert the Tories and they won't go to Corbyn. Steve and Sarah's old college pals Dave and Karen have already ditched the Tories in Richmond and many other outer London boroughs. That liberal minded pro-business sentiment may have been Boris Johnson's priority when he was London Mayor, he now has the Brexit Party snapping at his very existence and triangulating both will be beyond him now.

Jo Swinson is up front about what the party got wrong in the coalition government, which is why I think it's a mistake for the Labour attack lines to be so focused on that.

She also should be mindful that there are two words in the name of the party she now leads. She was proud and vocal about the first, but the social democratic tradition has the potential to go deeper and bolder.

Her other challenge will be tonal. I fully expected that speech to be a touch smug. It was anything but. The party has done very well to resist the meltdown many expected. But it's a long way off achieving anything yet. For now, this is a rare good story to enjoy in our national politics, before the horror show to come.

* Thanks to Daniel Sugarman, excellent journalist at the Jewish Chronicle, for that headline, a suggestion for an opening line for Ed Davey's concession speech.

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