Liberal Democrats looking to add to single seat in Scotland
Jo Swinson targets Remain voters in East Dunbartonshire
Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron and Jo Swinson, local candidate for East Dunbartonshire, with activists on the general election campaign trail. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA
If elections were won on street signs, there would be little doubt about the result in Milgnavie. A succession of neat hedgerows along the main road into this leafy Glasgow suburb are peppered with diamond-shaped placards in Liberal Democrat orange. All carry the same message: “Win with Swinson.”
East Dunbartonshire is one of the Liberal Democrats’ top targets in Scotland, if not the whole of Britain. This was once liberal territory, until Jo Swinson was washed out to sea in 2015 by the Scottish National Party tsunami that turned all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats nationalist yellow. Now, the former coalition minister is hoping for an unexpectedly swift return to Westminster.
“It feels better than 2015. There is no two ways about it. There’s an energy,” Swinson tells The Irish Times as rain lashes onto the corrugated roof of her campaign headquarters, in an industrial estate on the edge of Milgnavie. “I think [the Liberal Democrats] are going to make gains.”
Scotland was once a liberal stronghold. When liberal support collapsed across the UK in the mid-20th century, it still survived in Caledonian redoubts, particularly in the Highlands and islands.
On Thursday, the Liberal Democrats are looking to add to their single seat north of the border. Energy – and party finances – are being focused on the 10 Scottish seats lost in the 2015 drubbing.
On paper, Swinson’s task appears relatively straightforward. East Dunbartonshire delivered one of the highest Remain votes in last year’s Brexit referendum. It was also one the biggest returns for No in the Scottish independence referendum two years previously. Council elections in May returned the best local Lib Dem showing in a decade.
And with just 2,000 votes in it in 2015 between Swinson and the SNP’s John Nicolson, it is one of the most marginal seats in Scotland.
Swinson was a popular local MP in her decade in East Dunbartonshire, particularly before the Liberal Democrats went into coalition government in 2010. But anger at the Lib Dems’ U-turn on tuition fees – which helped propel the SNP from fourth to first here – has not dissipated completely. To win this time, the 37-year-old will need tactical unionist supporters to hold their nose and vote for her as the candidate best placed to defeat the SNP.
“The key will be what happens to the Tory vote. If the Tory vote decides to stick with their candidate, then Nicolson could hang on. If the Tory vote goes behind Swinson, she will win,” says David Whitton, a former local Labour member of the Scottish parliament.
In East Dunbartonshire, and across Scotland, the Liberal Democrats have been keen to brandish their anti-independence credentials.
Swinson’s campaign literature is heavy on her opposition to another independence referendum, less so her own party’s commitment to a fresh vote on the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal. “For most people, the way their feel about the United Kingdom is stronger than how they feel about the EU,” she says.
East Dunbartonshire voters are divided on the prospect of another independence vote. “The SNP are hell bent on another referendum,” says Moira, who declines to give her second name. “For me, I just feel ‘No, you had your chance. Let’s move on’.”
In the Allander Leisure Centre, on the edge of affluent Bearsden, Rex Whitehead is watching his grandson swim. The retired professor of theoretical physics in Glasgow University voted to stay in the European Union, and for Scottish independence. This time around he will be sticking with Nicolson. “I voted Swinson before. I’m a natural Liberal Democrat. But it seems that the natural Liberal Democrat space is occupied by the Scottish National Party,” says Whitehead.
So far, the predicted Liberal Democrat general election surge has failed to materialise. UK-wide, the party’s poll ratings remain in the single digits, with signs that, rather than piling on seats in pro-EU constituencies, the Liberal Democrats are struggling in seats they hold that voted Remain.
East Dunbartonshire is one of the party’s best chances of a Scottish gain. The party is banking on Swinson’s recognition but her opponent is well known, too. Nicolson was a broadcast journalist, and has been a regular on network politics shows since being elected two years ago. “People like that they can see me on the telly, talking about East Dunbartonshire,” says Nicolson.
Referendum on Brexit
He says that the Liberal Democrats support for a referendum on Brexit but not Scottish independence is “clearly inconsistent” and accuses Swinson of “negative campaigning”. “I covered countless byelections as a journalist so I know the Lib Dems fight dirty,” says Nicolson.
Back at LibDem headquarters in Milgnavie, half a dozen activists are getting ready for a final leaflet drop. Edward Sainsbury has come from Essex to Scotland to support the LibDem campaign. The 23-year-old children’s charity fundraiser has noticed a difference on the doorsteps north of the border. “In London it was more about funding for the NHS and schools,” he says. “But here it is all about Scottish independence.”