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by Mandy Rhodes
22 September 2019
A liberal view of democracy

Image credit: PA

A liberal view of democracy

Unfortunately for Jo Swinson, what could have seen her cast as a heroic Boadicea-like figure leading the charge in the March of the Moderates with a clear, coherent and potentially winning message for the Lib Dems on holding another referendum on Brexit, has instead left her portrayed as extreme as Farage and branded a hypocrite.

Having announced that if the Lib Dems won a general election, she’d simply revoke Article 50, cancelling Brexit and riding roughshod over the 17.4 million people who voted for it, Swinson has been so cavalier in her approach, as a liberal and a democrat, that a question mark now hangs over even her party’s name.

And in further polarising the debate to a choice of extremes – no-deal Brexit or no Brexit at all – she has done nothing to help heal division. Indeed, she has made it worse by baking it in.

To stoke what Swinson herself has called the “divisive us-against-them rhetoric” is surely not the job of the ‘middle-ground, keen-for-consensus, call-for-compromise, let’s-all-work-together’ Lib Dems, and yet that’s what she’s done.

And while her inexplicable decision to say ‘bollocks to democracy’ may have won her the accolade of ‘how-to-get-noticed-at-your-first-party-conference-as-leader’ award, it has also exposed her party to a whole new line of attack on hypocrisy, reopened the deep wounds created by their time in coalition with the Tories and sown the seeds of internal divisions that could yet cost her dear.

But for now, there is a smug confidence that has allowed Swinson to honestly believe she could wake up as the next PM and for her party to believe that with the defection of just half a dozen MPs from rival parties, a by-election win in Wales, where other parties stood aside to give them a clear run, the retention of a Scottish parliamentary seat in Shetland, which they had held with the largest majority for 20 years anyway, and a rise in membership, that the momentum is all with them.

The reality is this: Swinson leads a UK party of just 18 MPs and five MSPs. At the 2017 general election, the party won just 7.4 per cent of the vote, trailing massively behind Labour and the Tories, on 40 and 42.4 per cent respectively.

And for all that the party is now nipping at Labour’s heels in opinion polls, when translated into seats, they fall way behind. Labour currently has 247 MPs and the Tories 288.

And while the Lib Dems are avowed critics of the current first-past-the-post electoral system, having led us into a lacklustre referendum campaign on all of that in 2011, which few of us can barely remember and which did little to effect change, they will happily use it now to overturn the EU referendum result, even if they won an election by a tiny percentage of the vote.

But that’s for the birds. Swinson knows she won’t win an election with any sniff at a majority, so she can pledge all she likes knowing that’s a promise, like scrapping tuition fees back in 2010, she will never have to honour.

So, why bother?

Up until recently, the Lib Dems were the UK’s most obvious pro-Remain party. They wanted a second referendum, campaigned for a People’s Vote, decried parties like the SNP for not getting on board as quickly as them.

Swinson herself was at the fore of bringing the parties together to explore a third way, but in one stroke, she has overridden all that consensus and goodwill, and gone for broke with revoke.

No wonder the Green MP Caroline Lucas says Swinson’s pledge to revoke Article 50 without even having taken it back to the people is “arrogant”, “self-indulgent” and “cynical” and that the politics that it has helped fuel is “bloody dangerous”.

Swinson has basically said that democracy only counts if it chimes with her world view and to many, that will feel decidedly undemocratic.

And in Tory-held seats where the Lib Dems may have gone looking for rich pickings among Conservative-voting Remainers, overturning the 2016 referendum vote without a second referendum might even be too much to swallow for soft Tories feeling a little homeless right now.

In her own party, where longstanding candidates have been asked to move aside to make way for the likes of former Labour superstars such as Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger, there might be gracious tweets about their selflessness, but ask yourself, would the likes of Alex Cole-Hamilton happily give up his seat in Edinburgh Western to let a defected Tory in? I suspect not.

And among members, there are already signs of disquiet about Swinson’s enthusiastic embrace of Tory defectors. At conference, a number of key LGBT members quit in protest over the new membership of the likes of former Tory minister Sam Gyimah, who infamously talked out a new law that would pardon gay and bisexual men convicted of sexual offences that are no longer criminal, and Phillip Lee, the former Tory MP for Bracknell who abstained on a vote on equal marriage and tried to introduce an amendment to a bill which would ban HIV-positive immigrants from entering the UK.

And in Scotland, where Swinson’s own seat will be hard fought at any election, the party will struggle to counter the hypocrisy of Swinson being happy to say a mandate for her party in a general election could cancel out one referendum, but that in Scotland a majority for the SNP – a much more likely scenario – would not allow for a second independence referendum.

Moreover, Swinson is also in danger of losing on a gamble that Boris Johnson will not secure a deal or implement a no-deal before an election.

What then for a party that has become so aligned on just that single Brexit issue? 

Posturing without policy may attract popular support, but as Ruth Davidson’s party may soon discover, the legacy of that kind of politicking is ephemeral.

Swinson says that asking questions is a key part of being a Liberal, but she has perhaps also shown to a significant part of the electorate that ignoring the answers is also part of her Liberal DNA.

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