So there we are, there is now only one major British political party to have never been led by a woman. Jo Swinson has won her party’s top prize and will lead the Lib Dems at what is an unexpectedly exciting time for the not-quite-third party. She beat the other candidate, Ed Davey, handsomely – on a prospectus of cooperation with other Remain parties and with a refreshingly honest approach to telling the membership what they are wrong about. She has a mandate to reform the party and to work with others to seek to reshape the political centre-ground. And her election will further embarrass those in Labour already ashamed of their party’s problem electing women to leadership roles.
The leadership of the Liberal Democrats has not – in recent years – been seen as a position to be coveted by ambitious sorts. More than decimated by their time in coalition; lacking cut-through as the two main parties played out media-friendly psychodramas; distrusted by different groups of their traditional support, for different reasons. The Lib Dems did not look like a party on the up.
So entrenched did yellow decline look that when centrist, liberal MPs from Labour and the Tories decided to break with their parties they sniffily dismissed the prospect of joining the Lib Dems. The ChUK-TIGgers, instead, pledged to displace and replace them. ‘Their MPs would be welcome to join us’ the line went ‘but why would we want to ruin our brand by joining them?’ The failure of this strategy – and the reasons for its failure – are the reason no-one is sniffing at the Liberals nowadays. And the reason why leading the Lib Dems suddenly looks like an opportunity rather than a chore.
Part of the answer to ChUK-TIG’s failure and the Lib Dem ascendency is infrastructure. Yes the Lib Dems lost members, MPs and councillors as a result of coalition. But they retained an activist base, a professional central office with experience of fighting and winning elections. They had to bounce back, but there was a muscle memory there that was completely absent in their Jonny-come-lately centrist rivals. That made a big difference and it accelerated their momentum over the last year – enabling stunningly successful local and European election campaigns and establishing the Lib Dems as the obvious repository for strong Remain voters feeling alienated from the main parties.
And that is the second part of the answer. As more and more of the electorate define themselves not by party, per se, but along the Remain-Leave axis political opportunities have been created. Nigel Farage capitalised on Brexiteer unrest. The Lib Dems moved fast and with unity to occupy the Remain territory conceded by both the Tories and by Labour.
So, Jo Swinson inherits a party that is attracting voters (and, crucially, well healed donors) at a rate of knots. By virtue of being new to the job (and a woman in a soon to be all male line up of major Westminster party leaders) she will have a window of cut through and media attention in which to capitalise. It all looks pretty rosy.
There are challenges, of course. Can the Lib Dems keep the voters they have won from Labour even as Corbyn shifts position on Brexit (albeit as slowly as a leisurely oil tanker turning about face)? And will her party accept the sort of reform she has promised in a bid to make it look and feel more like modern Britain? And given she has ruled out a coalition with either Corbyn or with the Tories, what is her route to power?
Swinson might – as she revels in victory – be tempted to think she has time to work all of that out. But she would be foolhardy to rest on her laurels. British politics moves fast these days and there is every chance she might be fighting her first election as leader before she celebrates her first anniversary in the post. Time is of the essence.