Sturgeon and Swinson: A tale of two elections

Back in November, I wrote an article predicting that in the event of a hung parliament, SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, would be the most powerful people in Britain. With evidence pointing to a hung parliament or Tory minority, I predicted that Sturgeon and Swinson could hold the balance of power in British politics. Well, needless to say my predictions were generally incorrect.

Not only did no hung parliament materialise, but Jo Swinson lost her parliamentary seat and was forced to resign as leader of her party. I was, however, more on the right track for my predictions about Nicola Sturgeon. Having led the SNP to victory in 48 out of Scotland’s 59 constituencies, she remains one of the most powerful women and one of the most powerful forces in British politics. So how did it go so wrong for Jo Swinson but so right for Nicola Sturgeon? And how did I get my predictions spectacularly incorrect for Swinson but more accurate for Sturgeon?

When the election was called back in November last year, Jo Swinson pitched herself as the UK’s next Prime Minister. Here was her first mistake. Despite advertising herself as “the Liberal Democrat candidate for Prime Minister” and overseeing a Lib Dem election campaign that centred heavily on her, Swinson failed to ignite support amongst the general public. One poll even claimed that the more voters saw of her, the less they liked her. The findings of this research led to valid claims that Swinson was the victim of ‘unconscious’ misogyny, with so many members of the public not liking a woman politician but being unable to put their finger on why. But Jo Swinson’s mistake was not appearing in the Liberal Democrat campaigns and doing the media circuit (unlike both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, who sat out on a number of debates – Johnson far more than Corbyn), but her initial pitch to become Prime Minister.

The Liberal Democrats were always unlikely to go from their appalling performance at the polls in 2015 and 2017 and their total of fewer than 20 parliamentary seats, to the 326 needed to form a majority government. So Swinson’s initial declarations that she was a candidate for Prime Minister meant she lost credibility and seemed misguided. Politicians must tread a delicate line between being ambitious about their party’s electoral fortunes and not appearing misinformed. Swinson seemed to get this balance wrong.

Indeed, some have argued that the Lib Dems actually made their first mistake well before the election was called at their September party conference in Bournemouth. They abandoned their policy of pushing for a ‘People’s Vote’ on the question of EU membership in favour of a simple policy of revoking Article 50, without another vote or consulting the electorate in any way. This decision was popular with many passionate remainers, but raised issues of democratic legitimacy amongst many groups of voters. Through this change of policy, the Liberal Democrats essentially went from being the democratic ‘consult the people again’ option, to, as some have described them, ‘remain extremists’ – the antithesis to the ‘Brexit extremists’ of the Conservatives and the Brexit Party. The Lib Dems, of course, made this monumental policy decision long before the Labour policy on Brexit and their support for a renegotiated deal and second referendum were even made clear. Perhaps Swinson’s party saw an opportunity to gain Labour support by taking such a bold and unwavering stance, to give those who backed remaining in the EU a clear and uncomplicated option at the polls. Yet, even though a policy of completely forgetting the last few years of the Brexit debacle ever happened was appealing to many, it represented the Liberal Democrats abandoning their traditional moderatism on the most controversial and divisive issue of a generation.

That is not to say that the Liberal Democrats’ strong view on Brexit was completely unpopular. Many people across the UK were attracted to the Lib Dems as the only party which openly and simply backed remaining in the EU. The election campaign saw calls for people to tactically vote for the Liberal Democrats on social media in order to avoid Brexit and a Conservative majority. Love Actually’ actor, Hugh Grant, also turned out to canvass for Liberal Democrat candidates across London and encouraged the public to support the Lib Dems and other candidates who were committed to stopping Brexit. Swinson’s Lib Dems had significant early momentum, with some polls putting them at 17 points, not far behind Labour in the mid-twenties and the Conservatives in the thirties.

Yet by December this momentum had declined, as polls on the eve of the election put the Lib Dems on as few as 10 points. Jo Swinson’s personal standing and the party’s popularity had deteriorated even further as the Lib Dems failed to get through to the electorate. Challenged on austerity by the BBC’s Andrew Neil in an interview just over a week before polling day, Swinson apologised for backing austerity, saying, “it was not the right policy and we should have stopped it”. Despite Swinson insisting that she was “sorry I did that”, discussion and scrutiny around the Lib Dems’ role and Swinson’s own part in supporting austerity put the party’s central tension and criticism firmly into the political spotlight. This possibly contributed to a loss of many of the left-leaning anti-Brexit voters who could not bring themselves to back the party complicit in the programme of policies linked to the deaths of at least 120,000 people in the UK. Young voters especially, though fans of the Lib Dems’ EU policies, definitely may have struggled to forget the party’s support for austerity – and tuition fees – in order to back the party.

In the case of the Lib Dems’ support for austerity, sorry was not and is still not enough

There is, of course, an irony here in that younger voters were likely the group who would most enthusiastically support revoking Article 50. The Lib Dems, however, were almost the wrong party to espouse such a policy given their record of backing heartless and controversial cuts and policies, such as the bedroom tax and wider public spending cuts, that hit the most disadvantaged people in the country the hardest. The scrutiny Swinson faced on austerity and the failure to ignite support from more left-wing sections of the electorate as a result of both the Lib Dems’ and her own coalition record goes to show that all political decisions have and will have ramifications for years to come. Perhaps it was naive for the Liberal Democrats to think that their anti-Brexit stance represented a new chapter in the party’s history and that Swinson’s leadership would put the shame of austerity behind them. In the case of the party’s support for austerity, sorry was not and is still not enough.

Things got even worse for the Lib Dems on election night. Not only did they fail to gain any seats, the party actually suffered a net loss of one seat. From their total of 12 seats at the 2017 election, the Lib Dems only managed to win in 11 constituencies, evidence that their Brexit pitch, Swinson’s leadership and her ambitious campaign had failed to cut through. Swinson lost her East Dunbartonshire seat (which she had only regained in 2017, after losing two years earlier) by less than 200 votes to the SNP’s Amy Callaghan, bringing to an end her leadership of the party and any hope that she would be the “Liberal Democrat…Prime Minister.”

However, it must be noted that under Swinson’s leadership the Lib Dems’ share of the vote actually increased from 7.8% to 11.5%. The Lib Dems enjoyed the greatest increase in their share of the vote, in comparison to all other parties. So can we really dismiss Swinson’s leadership and the Lib Dems’ performance at the polls as a total failure? It does indeed seem deeply unfair to do so, given that under Swinson some considerable ground was made. For the share of the vote to increase so dramatically in the space of two years, Swinson must be credited for inspiring some confidence. It is also clear that the Lib Dems had some popular policies, reflected in them enjoying biggest surge in their share of the vote between the 2017 and 2019 general elections.

However, when this increase in vote share is looked at in context, it still paints a worrying picture for the party. At the 2010 general election, under the leadership of former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems won 23% of the vote. The 2005 election saw the Lib Dems enjoy similar success with 22% of the vote. When their decline over the past 10 years is considered, the Lib Dems still have an incredibly long way to go. Of course Swinson would be unlikely to turn around the party’s decline since the 2015 election (when they won 7.9% of the vote) single-handedly, but their increase in the share of the vote still means that the party is some way off their pre-coalition successes.

With just under 4 million votes, the Lib Dems definitely achieved considerable and broad support, likely for their pro-EU stance and ideological centrism. Yet, first past the post renders this meaningless, unless this support is achieved in a concentrated geographical area. First past the post shows no signs of giving way to a more proportional system, so the Lib Dems must craft a new identity and plan if they are to break through a system that favours the two main parties and those with votes concentrated in a specific area. Swinson led the party to significant gains in vote share, but ultimately the system in use in Britain means this is irrelevant if it does not translate into seats. Swinson, of course, cannot be blamed for this, but the party’s repeated failure to achieve success under first past the post system will need to be the main issue for the Lib Dems going forward.

Bluntly put, the SNP’s electoral domination of Scotland was never really in doubt

I predicted that Swinson could be the most powerful woman in Britain should there be a hung parliament, but the failure of the Lib Dems’ campaign to really take off, and Labour’s loss of support on an incredible scale, ensured that there would be no hung parliament and, as a result, that Swinson didn’t find herself in a position of power on the morning of 13 December. Swinson’s campaign as Lib Dem leader started off with hope and ambition and arguably could have ended with her holding the balance of power. Instead it resulted in her resignation and electoral decline for her party.

Nicola Sturgeon had a very different experience on the night of 12 December. The First Minister of Scotland excitedly watched as her party gained and retained all but 11 of Scotland’s parliamentary seats, leaving them with a total of 48 and making them the UK’s third largest party. Though Sturgeon did not find herself holding the balance of parliamentary power in a hung parliament on the morning of the 13 December her new-found power in British politics must not be understated.

Bluntly put, the SNP’s electoral domination of Scotland – the correct part of my prediction – was never really in doubt. Their pro-independence position and demands for a second referendum on the question of Scottish independence offered voters a route through which Scotland (which backed remaining in the EU by 62% in the 2016 referendum) could remain a member of the EU, departing the UK and leaving its Brexit nightmare. At the 2014 referendum, the question of Scottish independence was defeated by 55%, but with EU membership at risk, indications are that some Scottish unionists would sacrifice being part of the UK in favour of being in the EU. Indeed, the SNP did see its share of the vote increase by nearly one point, highlighting the popularity of their alternative independent, but European-based, vision for Scotland’s future. Polling shows variations in support for Scottish independence, but as Johnson’s Conservatives threatened a no deal in the autumn of 2019 and will now push ahead with their hardline Brexit plans, it wouldn’t be surprising if opinions on this matter changed in the SNP and Sturgeon’s favour.

Since the election, Sturgeon has renewed calls for a second independence referendum

The impact of Sturgeon’s leadership cannot be ignored in dissecting her party’s performance at the polls. It is hard to argue that Sturgeon did anything but a stellar job at representing Scotland and the SNP on the UK-wide stage. Her appearances at debates and during interviews presented her as calm, clear and straight-talking; a world away from some of the main figures in Westminster. Sturgeon has also, of course, served as First Minister of Scotland since 2014, lending her credibility, public standing and experience that many of her rivals within Scotland and across the UK lacked.

Nicola Sturgeon’s election night was perhaps best summed up in a short video captured on Sky News. It showed the First Minister animatedly and excitedly celebrating as Jo Swinson lost her East Dunbartonshire seat to SNP candidate, Amy Callaghan. You can imagine that Sturgeon did a similar celebration throughout the night as she watched her party gain 13 seats on their performance in 2017. Despite the Liberal Democrats getting almost three times the number of votes that the SNP did, it was Nicola Sturgeon’s party, with support concentrated in a specific region of the UK, who broke through the first past the post system to emerge the third largest party – one which will no doubt become a considerable force at Westminster in the next parliament.

My predictions on Nicola Sturgeon and her electoral fortunes proved correct. She holds the power I anticipated, though not in a hung parliament but under a huge Tory majority. Since the election, Sturgeon has renewed calls for a second independence referendum, insisting that the election result “renews and strengthens” the mandate for the SNP Holyrood government to hold another independence poll. Unlike a hung parliament, under a majority Johnson-led Conservative government she is far less likely to be granted permission to hold another vote on independence. However, it’s clear that Sturgeon will not give up fighting for the core tenet of her party’s platform, having repeatedly fought for a renewed vote since the EU referendum. In fact, Johnson’s refusal to allow such a vote will likely do Sturgeon huge favours, alienating Scotland further from Westminster and presenting it with a post-Brexit Britain that even unionists may want to escape.

I predicted that Sturgeon would be one of the most powerful women and one of the most powerful people in Britain after the election. Scottish nationalism linked to European internationalism is encapsulated in Sturgeon’s leadership and represents one of the most significant current threats to the UK, with the prospect of dissolving the Union seeming ever more likely as the Brexit process continues. Sturgeon is now undoubtedly one of the most powerful women in the UK, heading a serious attempt to break up the Union which has stood for over 300 years.

As the exit poll came through on the night of 12 December, I was definitely not the only one who realised in that moment that my predictions were wildly wrong. The 2019 election was volatile and fast-paced, resulting in huge variations in polling and a sharpened shock when the results went a completely different way than expected. For Sturgeon and Swinson it really was a tale of two elections. My predictions hinged on a hung parliament, which never came into fruition, and were only half right, with Sturgeon being the only one to hold power by the morning of the 13 December. Swinson was dogged by a failure to define a new, popular political identity as well as the shadows of the Lib Dems’ past, whilst Sturgeon’s success rested on her ambitious, alternative view of the future.

The 2019 election has been, above all, testament to the sheer unpredictability of UK elections.

The featured image shows Nicola Sturgeon, wearing a bright red suit over a white top. She smiles directly at the camera and stands, on a stage, with her arms out open. Behind her there is a large crowd cheering and clapping.
Photograph by the First Minister of Scotland

The first image shows Jo Swinson standing on stage at the CBI Conference. She stands in front of a blue background with ‘CBI’ on it in black lettering. Swinson wears a purple dress, has her hands folded in front of her and smiles off to the side.
Photograph by Andre Camara

The next photograph shows Jo Swinson stood in the middle of a room of Liberal Democrat campaigners. Many of the campaigners are holding orange, diamond shaped placards with the Liberal Democrat logo and name on them in black font. Swinson wears an orange jumper and black trousers. She is mid-speech, gesturing with her arms.
Photograph by Andre Camara

The next photograph shows Nicola Sturgeon, looking up at something and smiling. She wears a white top and a black jacket and is looking at something out of the frame.
Photograph by the First Minister of Scotland

The last photograph shows Nicola Sturgeon, stood behind a podium, delivering a speech at the Scottish National Economic Forum. She is stood in front of a blue background with a ‘National Economic Forum’ on it in white type, next to pictures of cogs. There are two microphones at either end of the podium and Sturgeon looks slightly off to the side. She wears a dark blue dress, with white edging at the neckline.
Photograph by the First Minister of Scotland