It’s Saturday 30th April 2005. A group of Lib Dems gather in a house in Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow. A young woman implores us to take 300 leaflets each, both morning and afternoon. It was so important, she said, that these went out that day so we could get on to the final part of the campaign. We’d come such a long way, we couldn’t risk the progress we’d made. It was going to be so close. She acknowledged that it was going to be hard on us, but we needed to get it all done.
After a long campaign, we were already pretty knackered. But we did it. Because we could see in that young woman an exceptional talent. Even then, we thought she could one day lead the party. And because we knew that whatever she asked of us, she expected even more of herself. The vision she had for the area, the fire and passion with which she communicated it and the relentless hard work she put in inspired us all.
Five days later, Jo Swinson became the MP for East Dunbartonshire. It was a new seat. Never before had the towns of Bearsden and Milngavie been in the same seat so, although we had a strong local government base there, gaining a parliamentary seat had never been in our grasp. Boundary changes gave us a shot at it but success was far from assured. Enter Jo, a 24 year old brought up in the area.
She put her life on hold for 18 months as she moved back home with her parents, worked part time in the mornings, delivered leaflets in the afternoon and went canvassing in the evening. She inspired hordes of her old LDYS colleagues to come north to help her.
At that time I was the Scottish Party’s Campaigns and Candidates Convener. I knew what was going on across all the seats. Jo would phone me up and tell me that she hadn’t done enough. I knew that she had done more than most others, including some sitting MPs, by some margin and it was having an impact.
About ten days before the election, I had been canvassing an estate in Milngavie with Jo’s Dad, Peter. You could just see the pride in his face as he saw the extent to which his daughter had achieved not only name recognition, but admiration and agreement from voters.
Peter sadly died last year. He and Jo were very close. She credits him with teaching her to ask questions. She’s been challenging the establishment way back since she tried to get her school to let girls wear trousers and she is just as hungry to do that now as she was then.
Jo’s hard work paid off and then she paid back. Despite the exhausting regime of an 800 mile round trip to Westminster each week, she did all she could to encourage others, particularly from under-represented groups, to stand for Parliament. She was a pivotal force in the Campaign for Gender Balance, running inspiration days for women all over the country. One of those she encouraged was her now colleague on the green benches, Christine Jardine.
And when, despite trying everything, progress stalled – and, in fact, we went backwards with all white male groups in both Holyrood and Westminster – she changed her mind and accepted that measures such as all-women shortlists were necessary.
Ahead of the game
Jo has always been been way ahead of the game. She’s understood what is going to be important in the years to come. Her passionate advocacy of gender equality was not as mainstream then as it was now. She talked about body confidence, outlining the pervasive effect on young people of unrealistic media expectations of what constituted beauty. She took cosmetics giant L’Oreal to the Advertising Standards Authority and won.
A decade ago and more, she tackled Easter egg manufacturers over excess packaging before people were really taking plastics seriously.
Her leadership campaign vision of transforming the economy to put people and planet first is not new. This, from her first Conference speech as a Minister in 2012 on the importance of making work more fulfilling:
I know what it’s like to have a job where you’re clock-watching, or feeling unfulfilled.
– I have worked in a fast-food restaurant where the cries of “how many bodies do we have on the tills?” made me realise I was less a valued member of staff and more a production machine.
– I have worked in the Disney store, where even for someone with my cheery disposition, the enforced perma-smile was too much to bear.
– And I have worked for a local radio station, where the great charity work we did at the grassroots was measured by the parent company solely in terms of positive column inches, which was so demoralising for the team.
Without a doubt, I know that I have been at my most productive, creative and effective when I have relished going to work. It’s only natural.
When employment has risen significantly but GDP has not, we do need to ask the question, are we doing all we can to unleash the potential of our most precious resource – our people?
A great communicator
We’re doing pretty well at the moment. Better than we have done for years. But to build on that, we need a leader who can cut through the noise and grab people in the heart. Jo is that leader.
She combines humour, candour and plain speaking to bring people in. She will reach well beyond the comfort zone of our party by connecting with people. The way she wrote about the birth of her son Gabriel yesterday was absolutely beautiful:
And, earlier in the week, after Boris’s bizarre bus revelation, there was this:
When you connect with people on that very human level, they are much more likely to listen to what you have to say about the future of the planet, about what needs to happen to make our lives better.
Jo has an exceptional ability to communicate complicated messages in a way that means something to people. “Putting people and planet first” is much more practical and engaging than “Decarbonise capitalism.” The messages are similar but Jo’s delivery is much more effective.
The C word
Both Jo and Ed were ministers, and very good ones, in the coalition years. While Ed is more bullish about the good we did, Jo, I think, has the right amount of humility about where we got it wrong. She is bold enough to say that we made mistakes and to talk about how we have learned from them. That is a vital part of bringing in the people we lost during those years and those we never had in the first place.
It’s the right balance. We did achieve good things but people will only see that if we acknowledge where we didn’t get it right.
The other C word
Jo’s openness to working with others is not new.
I visited her in her Commons office just after she had become Nick Clegg’s PPS in 2011. As we spoke, she signed a huge pile of letters to every single MP from every single party inviting them to talk to her about things that concerned them.
It’s that collaborative attitude that has helped her build relationships across Parliament to make progress on all sorts of things from abortion to shared parental leave to proxy voting for MPs.
And it’s that collaborative attitude that will make it easier for others to join with us to achieve our goal to stop Brexit. It’s getting the balance right – being open and making sure that we protect and preserve our distinctive liberal voice. She’s got that.
We are a party that is broadly united on the sort of society we want to see. Ed and Jo have similar ideas on many issues but I’ve noticed a couple of things that are quite significant for me.
Ed is more cautious on things like electoral reform – he wants to introduce it for local government first. This is something that was famously achieved by the Lib Dems in Scotland – but we already had a proportional Parliament. Electoral reform at all levels is a key priority for Jo.
Jo also appears to be more open to the idea of Universal Basic Income. That doesn’t mean to say that she is yet in favour of it but she understands its usefulness as technology and AI takes more jobs. Again, Ed is more cautious, wanting to reform Universal Credit first.
The final difference is on the mechanics of stopping Brexit. Tom Brake called into question Ed’s idea for a Government of National Unity with Yvette Cooper or Hilary Benn at its head. Could that be feasible, he said on BBC News, given that Cooper in particular has not shown enthusiasm towards a confirmatory referendum.
I’m really looking forward to casting my vote for Jo tomorrow.
I don’t think I have ever been so proud to vote in my life and have never cast one that is so totally positive. Jo’s vitality, wit, wisdom and instinctive ability to be ahead of the game make her the best person to ensure that we build on our recent successes. She knows that our success comes from a simple, emotional message, communicated well.
I have been saying for years that we need a leader who can tell our story well and really tug on people’s heartstrings. We need to evoke those positive emotions of hope and optimism and generosity of spirit to combat the fear and rage being generated by both left and right.
Future success will come from an instinctive ability to understand what is going to be important not just tomorrow or in six months, but in five, ten, thirty years.
Don’t expect it to be easy. Jo has never knowingly under-estimated anyone’s capacity for work and everything she says will come with a to-do list for us. Just look at her book, Equal Power. Every chapter comes with an action plan for readers to change the world.
Jo is the right leader for now. She has the vision and the vitality to take us forward and that’s why I would like you to #joinJo too.