The Real Politics of the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats put a great deal of emphasis on their social justice credentials and on their environmentally friendly stance. However, just how much does this stand up to critical scrutiny? It does appear that much of the “liberal” nature of the party’s traditions have been ditched in favour of Jo Swinson’s obsessive opposition to Jeremy Corbyn at all costs. Even being prepared to accept a “No Deal” Brexit, rather than support The Leader of the Opposition as a short-term head of a government of national unity in order to ensure the UK didn’t crash out of the EU. So, who is Jo Swinson and how has she voted since being elected as an MP? The truth might surprise many.

Jo Swinson was first elected as an MP in 2005; she served in the 2010-2015 Conservative-Liberal Coalition as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Cleg and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs. She lost her seat in the backlash against the Liberal Democrats in 2015, regaining it in the snap election in 2017. She was elected Leader in July 2019. All the following information comes from parliamentary voting records (see: They Work For You).

Education Policy

Jo Swinson’s record on education is completely in line with Conservative Party policy and in the key votes she has always supported the Conservatives. This includes support for measures to make further study more difficult for children from disadvantaged backgrounds by raising university tuition fees to £9000, raising the interest rate on student loans to market rates and supporting the abolition of Educational Maintenance Grants.

In addition, the Liberal Democrats supported changes to electoral registration which saw almost a million people, hundreds of thousands of them young people and students, removed from the electoral register. Lisa Nandy wrote in The New Statesman in 2015:

Those cities with the largest student numbers have seen some of the largest falls in registered electors. In Liverpool there are over 20,000 fewer people on the electoral roll. In Nottingham, 13,000 fewer people are registered. In Manchester and Brighton it’s over 12,000 fewer people. In Leeds the figure is over 3,000 and in Sheffield almost 5,000 people fewer people will be registered to vote. In dozens of towns and cities across the country – including in Nick Clegg’s backyard – students are denied the chance to hold this government to account at the ballot box.

Nandy, Lisa (2015)

In school policy, Jo Swinson, and the Liberal Democrat Party, fully supported the gradual privatisation of education by voting to increase the number of Free Schools and academies including voting against restricting new Academy Schools to areas in need of additional capacity.

Welfare Benefits

The Liberal Democrat support for the Conservative “Bedroom Tax” resulted in placing the disabled and disadvantaged right in the firing line of the coalition’s brutal austerity cuts. Liberal Democrats and Jo Swinson in particular not only supported this, but helped to implement it whilst sitting in government alongside the Conservatives.

Whilst in the coalition government, Jo Swinson supported the Conservative 1% cap on public sector pay rises, setting the rate of increase of certain benefits, payments and tax credits at 1% rather than in line with prices at 2.2% for 2014 and 2015. This meant that an average health worker suffered a real-terms pay cut of almost £2,000, while an ambulance worker had their real-term pay slashed by over £5,000. At the same time, she consistently supported reducing benefits and public services for the poor and disabled, capping any increase discretionary working age benefits and tax credits at 1% in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Before losing her seat in 2015, Jo Swinson voted in favour of reducing housing benefit for those deemed to have excess bedrooms – the so called “Bedroom Tax”. She voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices. At the same time, Jo Swinson opposed increasing income tax for those earning over £150,000, and opposed introducing a tax on banker’s bonuses and reducing the rate of corporation tax, protecting those who need it least at the cost of the most vulnerable in society.

Whilst Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats support the 365-day limit on receiving contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance, she opposed making an exception for those with a cancer diagnosis or undergoing cancer treatment. Jo Swinson voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability.

Social and Economic Issues

The 2010-2015 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came into government in the aftermath of the 2008 world financial crash. Rather than introduce measures to curb financial institutions and protect the vulnerable, Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats, stood firmly alongside the Conservatives in favouring those who caused the crash against those who suffered as a result. Whereas taxation could have been used to redress the balance, Jo Swinson voted to increase the rate of VAT, and reduce the rate of corporation tax meaning whilst large corporations paid less tax, those on low incomes paid proportionately more. She opposed increasing the tax rate applied to incomes over £150,000, opposed introducing a 10% rate of income tax paid for by a mansion tax and opposed a tax on bank bonuses to fund guaranteed jobs for young people out of work for over a year. Jo Swinson opposed proposals to reform the banking industry.

One way out of the economic crisis would have been by strengthening the economy through stimulating greater employment opportunities and so producing greater prospects for work especially for young people. All such measures were opposed by Jo Swinson who opposed calling on the government to get more people into work and voted against introducing a compulsory job guarantee for young people and the long term unemployed. The Liberal Democrats generally opposed measures to stimulate economic growth and job creation, in particular, opposing tax breaks for small firms taking on extra workers.

Jo Swinson’s failure to support working people stretched into opposing more progressive economic measures to stimulate the economy. She consistently opposed reducing excessive rail fares and soaring energy costs, failed to stand up for families in the private rented sector. This stretched into opposing placing curbs on payday lenders, an energy price freeze, long term reforms to the energy market, free childcare for working parents of three- and four-year olds, greater regulation of gambling, and if that was not enough, opposed action to boost housing supply. Finally, Jo Swinson supported restricting the scope of legal aid making it more difficult for those on low incomes to access legal support.

The 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto stated “Liberal Democrats will put thousands more police on the beat”. Jo Swinson supported cutting police numbers to their lowest level since September 2001.

Environmental Issues

Whilst the Liberal Democrats make great store of their environmental and green credentials, their voting record shows this appears to be little more than a sound bite. John Fergusson, writing in the Scottish Daily Record, reported that in 2014, Jo Swinson accepted £14,000 in donations from Mark Petterson, a director of Warwick Energy Ltd – a firm with fracking licences across England. Shortly after, in 2015, Jo Swinson voted against a moratorium on fracking permits and against a requirement for an environmental permit being granted for fracking. The Daily Record also showed that Jo Swinson opposed carrying out a review of the impact of fracking on climate change, the environment, the economy, and health and safety. In reality Jo Swinson generally voted against greater regulation of fracking, and against requiring permits for fracking.

More broadly, she voted for selling off state-owned forests and for cutting subsidies for renewable energy. Hardly an environmentally friendly position. Credit where it is due though. She did table a 2007 bill against excessive packaging of Easter Eggs. Admittedly the Liberal Democrats did introduce a 5p charge on plastic bags, but only by agreeing to Conservative proposals to tighten benefit sanctions against the vulnerable.

Whilst in Government, Jo Swinson voted in favour of cutting subsidies for electricity generated via renewable or low-carbon methods, and against targets for the amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases produced per unit of electricity generated. The Daily Record reported she voted against requiring the Green Investment Bank to support the target of reducing carbon emissions to 20% of 1990 levels by 2050. Jo Swinson also refused to support the completion of a cycle path in her constituency of Milngavie after complaints from motorists.

It is not just the Labour Party who can see through Jo Swinson, as indeed Tim Holmes in The Ecologist magazine argues “Jo Swinson has a chequered history in relation to the environment – which is somewhat eclipsed by her dire record on poverty and workers’ rights”.

Party Defections

In the 2017 General Election, the Liberal Democrats gained 12 MPs. Since then 7 more have defected from the Conservative and Change UK parties, meaning almost 40% of their MPs were not actually elected as Liberal Democrat MPs.

  • Heidi Allen (Conservative)
  • Luciana Berger (Change UK)
  • Sam Gyimah (Conservative)
  • Philip Lee (Conservative)
  • Angela Smith (Change UK)
  • Chukka Umunna (Change UK)
  • Sarah Wollaston (Conservative)

Their voting record makes it difficult to see how the Liberals Democrats deserve the name “Liberal”. By welcoming MPs who were not even elected as Liberal Democrats, and who refuse to stand in a by-election, makes it difficult to see how the Liberal Democrats deserve the name “Democrats”. Without being at all liberal and by refusing to be democrats, it is difficult to see what is left of the Liberal Democrats.

Sources

Fergusson, John (2019) “Jo Swinson branded a ‘hypocrite’ for taking fracker’s cash as Lib Dem leadership hopeful comes under fire”, The Daily Record, 9th June 2019.

https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/liberal-democrat-leadership-hopeful-dubbed-16483979

Foster, Dawn (2019) “The Galling Hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats”, Jacobin, 17th July 2919.

https://jacobinmag.com/2019/09/liberal-democrats-uk-brexit-lib-dems-tories-labour

Holmes, Tim (2019) “Jo Swinson, fracking and social justice”, The Ecologist, 29th July 2019.

https://theecologist.org/2019/jul/29/jo-swinson-fracking-and-social-justice

Low, Jo (2019) “Jo Swinson criticised over donor links to fossil fuels and tax avoidance”, The Ferret, 30th July 2019. (Paywalled)

https://theferret.scot/jo-swinson-tax-adviser-fossil-fuel-donations/

Mason, Rowena (2015) “How much of the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 election manifesto was implemented?” The Guardian, 15th April 2015.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/15/how-much-of-the-liberal-democrats-2010-election-manifesto-was-implemented

McKinstry, Leo (2013) “Lib Dems are the party of arrogant leftist hypocrites”, Daily Express, 16th September 2013.

https://www.express.co.uk/comment/columnists/leo-mckinstry/429798/Lib-Dems-are-the-party-of-arrogant-leftist-hypocrites

Nandy, Lisa (2015) “We won’t let the Lib Dems run away from their record“, New Statesman, 18th January 2015.

https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/01/we-wont-let-lib-dems-run-away-their-record

Stando, Olaf (2019) “Jo Swinson: here’s what you need to know about the new Lib Dem leader”, Scottish National Party, 22nd July 2019.

https://www.snp.org/jo-swinson-heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-the-new-lib-dem-leader/

They Work for You (nd) Jo Swinson’s voting in Parliament.

https://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/11971/jo_swinson/east_dunbartonshire

Worrall Patrick (2015) “What have the Liberal democrats ever done for us?”, Channel 4, 23rd March 2015.

https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-liberal-democrats

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