Jo Swinson channels Emmanuel Macron

The Liberal Democrats conference in Bournemouth was a heady affair. With a new leader, and new members flooding in, including six MPs from other parties, conference goers sensed they were on the verge of something thrilling. Jo Swinson, that new leader, got a standing ovation when she suggested that she was candidate for prime minister. What to make of it all?

The Times cartoonist showed the party bird emblem morphing into a flying pig. Scepticism is warranted, of course. I was particularly struck by this article from Financial Times political correspondent Robert Shrimsley, and in particular this comment:

If this moment does indeed offer a historic opportunity for the Lib Dems, they do not seem ready to grasp it. The strategy seems entirely short-termist, worrying about the rest once they’ve got a few more seats. Little suggests the birth of a credible new Macroniste third force.

It is easy to see now Mr Shrimsley came to this view. Brexit dominated the conference, and in particular the party’s promise to revoke the UK’s Article 50 notice to quit if it won a majority in a general election. Many commentators dismissed this as a gimmicky promise made because the party assumes it will never be in a position to implement it. A parallel was drawn with the party’s policy against university tuition fees in its 2010 manifesto, which it reversed in coalition, with disastrous consequences to the party’s standing. Indeed many members worry that this is the wrong way to overturn a referendum result; I myself voted to remove this from the relevant policy motion on Brexit, though it did not stop me from voting for the motion after this vote failed. When Ed Davey gave his Shadow Chancellor’s speech, he said a lot about stopping Brexit, but nothing about managing the country’s finances. He also spent time developing the Remainer trope that people voted for Brexit as a protest from left-behind places, and that public policy should therefore address their needs. The conclusion may be sound, but the premise is weak. The bulk of the Leave vote was from people who did not like Britain being part of the EU because they dislike the shared sovereignty it implies and because they are sceptical of the benefits of greater openness. And even the protest voters still want the result to be honoured as a mark of simple respect.

So a party that reduces everything to an argument over Brexit, and whose core Brexit policy is a promise that nobody thinks it will have to keep. I share some of these misgivings, but I disagree with Mr Shrimsley. There are three reasons: the leader, the members and the big idea.

First the leader. Jo should not be underestimated. She has brought a determination and focus to the role that many may not appreciate. She did not become Britain’s youngest MP in 2005 by accident, but through hard work, leadership and determination. Besides, busy working mothers don’t have time for shilly-shallying (if I can be permitted a sexist comment…). People who get in her way are pushed aside. Local parties are learning this as they select their candidates for the next general election – and the leadership manages the process to an unprecedented extent. She is not a Jeremy Corbyn, who became leader almost by accident. But she isn’t a Boris Johnson either; she is equally ambitious, but lacks his biddability of political beliefs. She has clear ideas about where she wants to take the country. In her closing speech, after the disposing of Brexit, she developed some of those ideas: tackling climate change, a focus on wellbeing rather than GDP (an area where I have helped her develop party policy), prioritising mental health, and tackling youth crime. She has thought through the Revoke policy and I am giving her the benefit of the doubt. It may upset political commentators but the party will not break out of its third party hell by conforming to the wishes and expectations of the chatterers. It has to play hard and that is what its leader is doing.

A further striking thing about the party is its membership. Overwhelmingly it has joined since the catastrophic general election of 2015, and especially since the referendum of 2016. These new members are replacing the old hands and shaping a fresher political party; many of its parliamentary candidates are now from this generation. Amongst the new members are, of course, three sitting MPs elected as Labour, and three elected as Conservative. Five of these six were prominent in Bournemouth. I saw three of them up close (the three ex-Labour ones, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Angela Smith). All were very impressive, and a cut about the defectors that the party has seen before. They were met with a wall of love. Chuka in particular sounded fully integrated as he urged members to get out on to the doorsteps. He and Luciana were clearly ambitious politicians in mid-career, with no thought of retiring quietly. What all the new members shared was the sense that they have found a new home where they felt comfortable. This influx does feel like the beginnings of a Macroniste movement, especially in the way that it is drawing strength from left and right.

But what is the big idea that is bringing all these people together? Opposing Brexit obviously, but why? A commitment to being open, fair and tolerant. Surely all parties say they are that? But both Labour and the Conservatives have gone in a different direction. In members’ eyes the Brexit campaign was led by narrow and intolerant politicians who wanted to roll the clock back, for a variety of dark motives, and the Lib Dems present the antidote. This might strike outsiders as being stretch. The “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan was still much in evidence – a very short step from “Bollocks” to 17.4 million people who voted to leave. And the sixth MP who was not at the conference (or who kept a low profile), Philip Lee, would have had a much more difficult time, due to the interpretation that some of the things he has said and done were homophobic. Some prominent activists resigned when he was accepted into the party; others were in no mood to even give him a hearing. [See further discussion in comments below on this issue – I was probably not being quite fair on Philip – and the angry activists were probably a small minority] Lib Dems might claim to be open and tolerant, but they only manage it up to a point. But with both main parties riven by deselection issues, and treating bullying as politics as usual, the Lib Dems are clearly cutting through to a lot of people as representing a new style of politics. Interestingly, this is what Mr Corbyn tried to do when he took on the Labour leadership, but he has clearly failed. The Lib Dems might fail too, but for now the floor is theirs.

And so there are parallels between what the Liberal Democrats are trying to do and the rise of Emmanuel Macron’s political movement in France: a mix of firm leadership, centrist policies and a fresh style of politics. Sceptics should stay sceptical – but they should also keep an open mind. The party is about a lot more then Brexit.

10 thoughts on “Jo Swinson channels Emmanuel Macron”

  1. Phillip Lee was at conference, had a meeting with both LibDem Immigrants and LGBTI+. I met him and discussed issues with him. He was on the front row with the other 5 new MPs during Jo’s speech.

  2. Were you at a different conference, Matthew? As Mick says above Philip Lee was sitting on the front row during Jo’s final speech; and most of the debate on the conference floor was about subjects other than Brexit.

    1. Mick’s comment is noted and I will amend. My comments were based on a very tough series of questions to the parliamentary report faced by Alistair Carmichael, and the one moment in Jo’s Q+A where there was heckling. Also I don’t think Philip Lee took part in any fringe events and his profile was certainly low. But very glad he did meet the LGBTI+ and other activists to be given a chance to explain himself. And yes the conference was mostly about things other than Brexit (which is one of the reasons behind my conclusion) – though the NHS motion managed to get Brexit in the title. Climate change got a lot of prominence, as did the continuing focus by Lib Dems on mental health. Proposals on adult and further education were important too.

  3. Tuition fees is completely the wrong parallel to be drawn here. Let’s leave aside the suspicion that the Leader at the time was not actually keen on the policy. Candidates signed a pledge (written by the NUS) saying come what may, they would vote against any rise in tuition fees. It didn’t matter whether they were in government or opposition. And of course, when our MPs went back on the pledge, the party lost a lot of credibility.

    Our Revoke policy is specifically about what we would do if we won outright. Otherwise we go back to campaigning for a People’s Vote, either in government or out of it. And there is to be no signing of pledges written by third-party lobbyists (something I hope we never ever do again). And it’s safe to say that Jo actually believes in this flagship policy.

    1. I absolutely agree Alex – I didn’t have the space to pursue that one! I don’t think the leadership under Nick Clegg was ever fully signed up to the tuition fee policies and pledges, but was led by campaigners in university seats, enthusiastically backed by conference – and the policy was initiated by his predecessors. (That is to explain rather than excuse his subsequent actions). The Revoke policy comes directly from the leadership and there is no doubting that it owns it and its consequences.

  4. How is Emmanuel Macron “centrist”? He’s very right wing economically. You should have been supporting Hamon if you want the centre!

    Did you attend Guy Verhofstadt’s speech? Don’t LibDems find it worrying that a leading exponent of more European integration uses the word “Empire” to explain what they are trying to do? How does this fit into the the idea that power needs to be devolved downwards rather than concentrated at the centre?

    Most of us want free trade with Europe and were reasonably happy with the old EEC. Its been the change to the EU that has caused problems. Do Lib Dems really want to live in an Empire? Most of us don’t.

    1. Macron is centrist in that he is forging a coalition from the left (which is where he came from) and right, and he sees his aim as dragging France away from an excessively leftish, state-dominated, and over-regulated status quo. He is also pro EU. His main opposition comes from the National Front (surely to the right) and Melanchon (surely to the left). Which makes him in the centre in the French context. Centre in the British one is different. France hasn’t had enough neoliberalism; Britain has had too much.

      I was there for Guy Verhofstadt’s speech. The section on empires needs to be understood in context. He was saying that European nations needed to hang together if they were to stand up to the USA, China and Russia. Referring to the USA as an empire would win him the approval of Jeremy Corbyn, anyway! We are moving to a world reminiscent of before 1914, where “minor powers” had few rights in world politics. The EU is seeking to get the best of both worlds – national independence but enough of an “empire” to stand up to the bullies. That’s the theory, anyway. Power needs to be focused at the most appropriate level. I would say more of it needs to be at local level, but some at is needed at the supra-national level. But I admit that I do not trust Euro level politicians, even liberal ones, to get that balance right and it will be a constant source of tension.

      The original EEC was widely regarded as a failure after some initial success. Even Mrs Thatcher thought so, which is why she was so enthusiastic about the Single Market, which led pretty seamlessly to the EU. Economically that proved a success, though people are now complaining it too has run its course and we need a single market for services (I have reservations about that). The benefits of the Euro of course are much more debatable.

      Lib Dems do not want to be part of an Empire (or not in the fashion of Napoleon etc) but they do feel part of a wider polity, and treasure the freedom to cross borders to live and work, just as they value their neighbours from other European countries that have done just that in good faith that the UK was part of the project. I’m not sure how much agreement there would be on where to draw the lines. It is popular to say that the EU should be reformed, but nobody gets on to the awkward details. But there is a sense that leaving the EU is an attack on their identity that is felt in a very personal way. Hence the depth of the emotional response which now matches the emotion on the other side.

    2. With sky high unemployment, inefficient (if sometimes effective) public services, France clearly needs a bit of neoliberalism, and most of what Macron is doing is addressing ills that will make the French economy more efficient. Lib Dems do care about the economy, but see it as being a balance between individual and corporate enterprise and an efficient and effective state. Probably the Scandinavian model is most admired – there is a pretty free labour market there (unlike France), but much more serious support for people who are out of work. Good public services with a strong private element. Neoliberalism (I may mean something different to you?) is a basically sound idea that is often taken too far. France, Italy and Spain could do with more. Britain and the US have too much. Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands have a better balance.

  5. @ Matthew,

    France can have not had too much neoliberalism only in the same sense as 18th century patients may not have had too much of those arsenic based ‘medicines’, or too much blood drained from their veins, as doctors were wont to prescribe at the time. As the link to political compass shows the FN (or whatever they are called now) aren’t to the right of Macron economically. We have to look at the authoritarian axis too.

    Lib Dems only seem to care about the y axis. The x axis doesn’t matter any more. In other words, providing Macron or anyone else says on message on such matters as a gay and women’s rights it really doesn’t matter how economically right wing they are. That’s why we see the rising disconnect between working people and the “liberal” establishment.

    I share your ambition for genuine internationalism but we’re never going to get there with people like Macron and Verhofstadt pushing for their vision of EU neoliberalism. The resistance from ordinary people, which LibDems dismiss as ‘populism’, will be too strong.

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