This should have been their breakthrough chance
Jo Swinson confidently asserted at the start of this month that her ambition from the election was to become prime minister. At the time, it sounded exuberantly audacious; in retrospect, it sounds absurd with obvious echoes of David Steel exhorting his followers to go back to their constituencies and prepare for government. Steel ended up after the 1983 election with 23 seats; Swinson, if the YouGov MRP poll has some predictive value, will finish with fewer still.
And yet her claim wasn’t completely absurd (nor was Steel’s, for that matter). In September, the Lib Dems frequently polled in the 20s, and had led Labour in two YouGov surveys. Although those numbers had slipped by the beginning of November and the start of the campaign proper, there was a genuine prospect that if she could grasp the mantle of the leadership of the left-of-centre and ally it with the Remain vote, the Lib Dems could make huge gains.
The Revoke policy might seem extreme and certainly struggled in the room during the Leaders Question Time but there’s a lot of support for it in principle. Last week’s DeltaPoll survey found 35% support for Revoke (though the question was hedged as “without necessarily holding another referendum” – my emphasis). Even 17% of Tory voters back it, though 30% of Lib Dems don’t, including 21% who are opposed. Back in the Spring, 6.1m people signed the online petition to Revoke Article 50. The base was undoubtedly there for the Lib Dems to hit at least 25% and perhaps, with an unpopular Labour leader, a good deal more – yet the last four polls have them on only half that. Why?
Life beyond Brexit
Many people (myself included) expected the election to be dominated by Brexit, or at least for it to be the most prominent issue. The Tories, Brexit Party and Lib Dems all had an interest in keeping it that way but that’s not how it’s turned out. Labour produced a radical manifesto that provided a lot of talking points, the political media were keen to get off the Brexit treadmill that had overtaken their lives, and other tax-and-spending issues have become at least as important. For the Lib Dems, who have nothing especially distinctive to say on these issues, that’s neutered by far their best campaigning point and meant they’ve struggled again for media coverage and impact.
Swinson isn’t up to it
I’ve always had my doubts as to whether Jo Swinson was the right choice to succeed Cable. Of course, we’ll never know how Ed Davey would have done so we can’t make a true comparison and we also know that Vince Cable and Tim Farron both failed badly to make impacts during their leaderships so part of it is undoubtedly structural to a party with less than half the seats the SNP have. On the other hand, the Lib Dems had been on a roll over the summer with the polls mentioned earlier and with picking up many defections. That momentum has completely gone. With an opportunity against Corbyn and Johnson to look like a grown-up against overgrown teenagers, she doesn’t cut it and her Mori favourability ratings, for example, have declined markedly over the campaign, with voters also believing the Lib Dems are having a bad campaign by 2-to-1.
The debates are a mess
Swinson hasn’t been helped by the debates, which did so much for Clegg in 2010. Then, there were three debates featuring three leaders, which gave Clegg the chance to be seen and heard on an equal footing with the Tories and Labour (but with no smaller parties), with many people watching. This time, there’ve been so many debates that it’s become a confusing cacophony and voters have tuned out. The opportunity for a game-changing moment in a positive way – “I agree with Nick” – isn’t there.
he Lib Dem strategy, as mentioned earlier, had to be centred on dominating the Remain vote, which also would have meant being the leading party opposing the Tories. The failure to achieve that goal reversed the dynamic the Lib Dems hoped for and with the Tories ascendant on the Brexit/right, those opposed to either Johnson’s European or domestic policy inevitably feel forced towards Labour, whatever their misgivings about Corbyn and co. Likewise, centrist Remain Tories, deeply sceptical about Johnson but seeing and fearing the rising Labour share, feel compelled to consider returning to the Blue colours. Without sufficient heft in the centre, we have a classic flight to the extremes as fear of the ‘other’ consolidates support around that which can best oppose it – but we shouldn’t make the mistake of believing the squeeze was inevitable: it wasn’t.
There is probably little that can be done for the Lib Dems now to reverse the losses of November. It may be that local campaigns can overcome the national picture and that it probably the Yellow Team’s best hope.
I assume that Swinson will stay on providing she retains her seat, which isn’t absolutely certain. Not only would the turnover itself be bad for the party but there’s no guarantee her replacement would be better. But whoever leads them, the question that she’s failed to answer this time remains: how do the Lib Dems develop enough positive support to avoid another tactical squeeze when it matters?