Tony Blair has in the past been criticised for introducing a presidential style of government where the focus is disproportionately on personalities rather than policies. David Cameron also carried on the ‘presidential’ style of leadership. However, neither man propelled themselves as the front and centre of their election campaigns in the same way that Jo Swinson seems to have made the Lib Dems’ election campaign all about her. There is a massive mug-shot of Swinson on the side of the Lib Dems’ battle bus accompanied by the words ‘Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats’. Does she now own the Lib Dems? Her legal challenge to feature in the ITV leaders’ debate has been rebuffed by the High Court in a sign that her weird presidential style of campaigning may be running out of steam.
As the election campaign got underway, voters across the country were treated to an A4-size Lib Dem pamphlet emblazoned with a picture of Swinson on the cover with the wording, “JO SWINSON: Britain’s next Prime Minister”. This led BBC’s Andrew Neill to ask Swinson, “When did you indulge in fantasy politics?” on his eponymous political show on 30 October 2019. Swinson is suffering from delusions of grandeur, because she leads the party which came fourth in the last general election with only 12 MPs. There was no opinion poll that suggested that the Lib Dems might gain over 300 seats next month. At least in 1981, the Liberal-SDP Alliance was polling as high as 50% prompting the then Liberal leader, David Steel to announce to his party faithful, “Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for government!”. The rest is history as they say, but support for Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems has actually been plummeting since she unleashed her presidential style election campaign.
There are many reasons why Swinson’s election campaign is falling apart with the latest setback delivered by the High Court. It is undoubtedly a mistake to make this election campaign all about her rather than policies. Even as a personality, Swinson is not a compelling figure in British politics. She was a junior minister in the Tory-led coalition in which she consistently voted for austerity measures such as the ‘bedroom tax’ and trebled university tuition fees. She voted in line with the Tory whip more than some Tories. She lost her East Dunbartonshire seat to the SNP in the 2015 general election. There are signs that she might lose her seat again to the SNP next month.
Swinson has tried to portray herself as a better candidate for Prime Minister than either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn without any previous track record to back it up. Her strategy seems to be to repeat it as many times as possible hoping that it will cut through to voters. That may have had the opposite effect with the Lib Dems losing ground in opinion polls.
Swinson’s policy of cancelling Brexit by revoking Article 50 has been widely criticised including by Caroline Lucas whose Green Party is in the so-called ‘Remain Alliance’ with the Lib Dems. Remain voters overwhelmingly view Swinson’s position as anti-democratic. It is being seen as a gimmick to hoover up disenfranchised pro-Remain Tory voters. However, latest opinion polls show that Remain voters are not responding to Swinson’s ‘cancel Brexit’ mantra.
Another feature of Swinson’s election campaign which has come under criticism and mocked on social media is the rather imaginative use of bar charts in Lib Dems’ election material. In my own constituency, Tottenham, the Lib Dem leaflet had a bar chart showing the Lib Dem vote was higher than Labour’s according to the EU election. This is misleading, because the Lib Dems finished a distant third in the last general election. They have no chance of winning in Tottenham and they have never won in Tottenham. The Norwich South Labour MP, Clive Lewis tweeted a picture of a Lib Dem leaflet from his constituency showing that Lib Dem were first, Greens second and Labour third based on the EU election result. The reality is that Lib Dems finished a distant third in the 2017 general election. This prompted Clive Lewis to tweet the following to Swinson, “@joswinson how about some straight-up honesty re your party’s bar charts? Pls don’t take the electorate for mugs. You do all of politics a disservice with this distant approximation of a vague half-truth.”
On social media, activists have taken to mocking Lib Dems’ fake bar charts. I have seen a meme with two bar charts on the map of North Korea depicting that Kim Jung Un was out of the race and that only Lib Dems could win there. Clive Lewis has tweeted a picture of an astronaut on the moon with a Lib Dem garden stake that says, “Liberal Democrats winning here”. With these fake bar charts, Swinson’s campaign has lost all credibility.
The High Court defeat exposes that there was no legal basis in Swinson’s challenge to feature in ITV leaders’ debate. A massive billboard foisted on a van outside the High Court showed yet another mug-shot of Swinson with the words, “Debate her”. The British public might be put off by such overzealous personal branding in an election campaign that is not electing a president. There are still some weeks to go before the general election. If the Lib Dems want to salvage this election, they will be better off ditching Swinson’s presidential style election campaign. Instead, they should focus on announcing policies that will help the ordinary people of this country who are suffering from nine years of crippling austerity. They might want to apologise first for their part in inflicting austerity.
First published in http://www.labourhub.org.uk on 19 November 2019.