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Published: 06 December 2019

CBE Election Watch 6: Jo Swinson

Here we are, hurtling into the final stretch of the campaign. The leaders are furiously flinging themselves around the country, popping up in schools, factories and occasionally in a boat. So far, we’ve looked at where Johnson and Corbyn are going, but this week Jo Swinson is our key focus.

Here we are, hurtling into the final stretch of the campaign. The leaders are furiously flinging themselves around the country, popping up in schools, factories and occasionally in a boat. So far, we’ve looked at where Johnson and Corbyn are going, but this week Jo Swinson is our key focus.

Swinson has had a bit of a bumpy end to her week, with her interview by Andrew Neil making the headlines. On her campaign trail, we have seen a bee gluing himself to her battle bus, she’s planted trees in Hampstead and had a go at boxing in Crouch End. The Liberal Democrat don’t quite have the same extensive campaign coffers that the Conservatives and Labour have, and with relatively few seats, it is far easier for Swinson to board her electric battle bus and visit them all in the campaign. In previous elections, the Liberal Democrat campaign trail has given us quite a few clues about the party’s ambition each time. Clegg in 2010 spent most of his time visiting seats held by the other parties, but in 2015, a great deal of his time was spent shoring up Liberal Democrat support in his own seats. There was a real sense that the party might suffer electorally after five years in coalition, so Clegg trudged and retrudged a well-worn path to the south west. It was at this election that Jo Swinson lost her own East Dunbartonshire seat. This collapse meant that in 2017, Tim Farron didn’t have many seats to visit, but plenty to reclaim. So, he took to the road, following Clegg’s well-worn path to places like Bath and Solihull - seats formerly held by his party and ones they were keen to regain.

Like so much in the current election campaign, things are different in the 2019 Liberal Democrat campaign trail. There are three key reasons why. Firstly, a party with ambition should send their leader to (ideally and most usually marginal) seats where they are in second place, all the while keeping an occasional eye on the party strongholds. At the time of writing, Swinson has been to twenty-seven constituencies since the campaign proper began on the 6th November. Discounting her own seat, the Liberal Democrat leader has only visited one seat that her party currently holds. This is Carshalton and Wallington, where Liberal Democrat veteran Tom Brake is defending a majority of 2.7%. Secondly, Swinson is actively visiting constituencies where the Liberal Democrats are in third – or indeed even fourth – place. Only six of her visits have been to seats where the challenger is a Liberal Democrat, and all bar one of these are seats they lost in 2015. Swinson has even popped up in seats held by Conservative big-hitters like Raab and Rees-Mogg. This is quite unusual – to be concentrating so heavily on places where the party would have to make up substantial ground is extremely ambitious. But have they gone too far? Lastly, there’s inevitably a Brexit element to this campaign trail, with Swinson articulating her party as the Remain choice. Compared to previous elections, she is spending far more time in London and spreading her visits around the capital. After all, the capital voted to Remain. More generally, most of the seats she is visiting voted to Remain in 2016, with an average vote of 62%. This includes Streatham where the former Labour MP Chuka Umunna is fighting to retain his seat under his new party label. Down at the other end, with a Leave vote of 56%, is Tom Brake. No wonder Swinson has been to visit him in the last week.

I spent eleven years living, working and studying in Scotland, so I do like to cast my psephological eye north of the border too. The Scottish party leaders do some quite distinctive things on the campaign trail. For a start, there are 59 seats in Scotland, so it is more achievable for a party leader to visit them all. The tone is different too. Party members are more likely to interact with members of the public and help out with the local campaign when they visit a constituency. It is more informal, more spontaneous, and often rather unexpected. The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has accompanied Jo Swinson when she has been campaigning in Scotland but has been having a lot of fun on the campaign trail, including riding a broomstick. Next week, I’ll give you a final blog reflecting on the 2019 campaign, before we hurtle headlong into picking over the results…

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