General Election: The two main reasons behind the Lib Dem disaster – Alex Cole-Hamilton

The Liberal Democrats passed our policy to revoke Brexit when a no-deal was looming, but even our own supporters thought it was undemocratic. But it was the negative caricaturing of Jo Swinson left me devastated, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.

Tuesday, 17th December 2019, 5:00 pm
Happier days: Jo Swinson takes a selfie while out on the campaign trail before losing her seat in the General Election (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)
Happier days: Jo Swinson takes a selfie while out on the campaign trail before losing her seat in the General Election (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire)

From the moment the final results are announced, the internal post mortem of any election begins for all political parties.

For the Liberal Democrats that began through the punch-drunk haze of having lost our leader Jo Swinson on Friday morning and it began in earnest. This was not, by any stretch, the campaign we had hoped it would be.

As a long-suffering member of my party, I am used to that growing sense of panic as the opinion polls travel incrementally south over the days and weeks of the campaign period, it’s happened before, but this time things felt especially cruel.

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Our hopes had soared over the spring and summer. We’d gained over 700 councillors in May and beaten both Labour and the Conservative Party in the European elections in June. At one point, we were ahead of Labour in the General Election polls and within touching distance of the Conservatives.

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We had absolute message clarity on the biggest issue of the day when the two other main parties were divided and incoherent.

With the brutal exception of Jo’s defeat, we held our own in Scotland, withstanding yet another nationalist wave and even gaining the only seat taken from the SNP that night, but south of the border the results were disastrous. So what went wrong?

Swinson caricature

A narrative was spun about the Lib Dems and more specifically Jo Swinson right out of the traps. We were at a historic high in the polls, we were fielding candidates in every constituency and yet Jo’s stated candidacy to be Prime Minister was regarded by all quarters as arrogant and above herself, who did she think she was?!

This set a tone for coverage and commentary that included caricatures of a head-girl with the voice of a sixth-form debater. This narrative was reflected back to us on the doorsteps.

Someone has yet to explain to me why two middle-aged and arguably second-rate male politicians, both with many (seldom mentioned), irritating characteristics, are not held to the same standard.

It seemed as though the deck was stacked against Jo from the outset and that deck carried with it the faintest whiff of misogyny.

The other thing that came back on the doorsteps was an antipathy to our central policy platform. We had stated that should we win an overall majority in the House of Commons, we would revoke article 50 and cancel Brexit on day one. We might have well have been offering to cancel Christmas. Even our own supporters challenged it for being undemocratic.

Catastrophic no-deal Brexit

Don’t get me wrong, I backed the policy – I even wrote about its merits in these pages. I don’t regret supporting it at the time, it just turned out to be the right policy for the wrong election.

We passed the policy to revoke article 50 at our Bournemouth conference in September. At that time, we were careering towards a catastrophic ‘no-deal’ Brexit. Any political analyst would have told you we were about to face a General Election in which the Conservatives would seek a mandate for that no-deal outcome.

It made perfect sense therefore that the only staunchly pro-Remain party should offer the British people a counter offer at the ballot box – no Brexit. When a deal appeared, the threat of an imminent no-deal evaporated and with it went any national understanding of our policy to revoke.

That policy expired at 10pm on Thursday night and so too did the tenure and seat in Parliament of my party’s federal leader. I’m ambivalent about the first but I’m devastated by the second. Politics is a rough old game, but we’ve been here before and we know the way back.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western