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Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democrats
Jo Swinson at the Liberal Democrats 2014 conference in GlasgowPhotography Dave Radcliffe, via Flickr

The Liberal Democrats are not your friends

There are tactical reasons to vote Lib Dem – just don’t believe that Jo Swinson’s party are genuinely progressive

I voted for the Liberal Democrats in 2010. I was 19 years old, and although I knew I’d never vote Tory – the party who’ve always sought to enrich themselves at the rest of the country’s expense – I also knew I’d never vote for New Labour, the party that started the Iraq War. Plus, I actually liked some of the policies that the Lib Dems were proposing. They wanted to break up the banks. They wanted to reduce the Trident nuclear weapons programme. They wanted to reform our electoral system. And they wanted to scrap university tuition fees for undergraduates, with Nick Clegg, the party’s then-leader, famously signing a pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the future.

I regretted my vote pretty quickly. After the election, the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservatives and started implementing a raft of nightmarish policies. Austerity caused 130,000 preventable deaths, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and it plunged even more people into poverty. It closed youth centres and cut vital funding to the NHS, stretching services to breaking point. It stripped countless people of their dignity and created a generation unable to even imagine a better future. This was always Conservative policy, but it could never have passed without the Liberal Democrats enabling it.

In return for lending the Tories their parliamentary support, the Liberal Democrats got... nothing. The banks weren’t broken up. Trident remained intact. Tuition fees weren’t scrapped, but tripled. Instead of replacing our first-past-the-post electoral system for the more democratic proportional representation, the Lib Dems instead settled for a referendum on the baffling ‘alternative vote’ system – which they then pathetically lost. What little achievements they made in government came with a far greater cost. A former special adviser to Nick Clegg revealed last year that the eco-friendly 5p carrier bag charge policy was a trade-off for tightening benefit sanctions.

There’s a general election tomorrow, and the Liberal Democrats want your vote. They’re telling you that things are different today. These are Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats, not the Lib Dems of 2010. The Tories have taken a hard-right turn under Boris Johnson and the country is heading towards a ruinous no-deal Brexit – a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to deny a Conservative majority, to revoke Article 50, to stop Brexit, to make this all go away.

And it’s true, these are not the same Liberal Democrats we had a decade ago. They’re worse.

Whether or not you like Jeremy Corbyn, his leadership within the Labour Party represents a clean ideological break from the past in a way that previous leader Ed Miliband, who served in Gordon Brown’s government, did not. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats have done very little soul-searching about their years in government. Jo Swinson, the party’s current leader, is effectively a continuity candidate from the coalition years. She served as a junior minister in the Tory-Lib Dem government. She voted to triple tuition fees, she voted for the bedroom tax, she voted for the benefit cap, for disability cuts, and worse. She voted with the Tories more than 800 times, more than actual Tory ministers like Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt did.

OK, but these were sacrifices she had to make while in government, right? Shouldn’t she be judged on what she’s proposing today, not on the mistakes she made in the past?

Well, not really. Let’s get the obvious out of the way – firstly, an MP’s past voting record is really the best indicator of what they plan to do in the future, and secondly, MPs do have the agency to resign if they disagree with something, and I’d argue that they have a moral duty to do so, given their actions affect people’s lives in very material ways. More to the point, Swinson was very much in favour of these cuts when she was still just a backbencher in 2010, long before she had a government position to lose.

“The Liberal Democrats aren’t running on a particularly radical manifesto this election. None of the policies that once attracted me to the party are there anymore”

Although she has apologised for “getting it wrong” on welfare cuts – as though this were some trivial mistake, and not a policy she presided over as recently as four years ago – there’s no real indication that the Lib Dem leader’s core ideology has changed. She’s still a hawk on austerity, in September accusing the Tories (of all people!) of having a “magic money tree”. She’s proposed that the Lib Dems run a permanent budget surplus, a cocaine-brained policy nicked from ex-Tory chancellor George Osborne (and widely discredited as being ungrounded in economic reality as far back as 2015). Swinson said she was sorry for voting for the bedroom tax, but that was only a week ago, four years after an academic study found that tenants suffered from high levels of stress, anxiety, hunger, poor diet, and depression as a result of the policy. Then there are other things, like writing an article for the Mail on Sunday about why we should build a statue of Margaret Thatcher, or allowing anti-gay, pro-privatisation Tory MPs to defect to her party, or keeping the door open for another Tory-Lib Dem coalition. None of this suggests that the Lib Dem leader holds particularly progressive values.

Swinson’s personal beliefs aside, the Liberal Democrats aren’t running on a particularly radical manifesto this election. None of the policies that once attracted me to the party are there anymore: nothing on the banks, nothing on tuition fees, and as for working towards a nuclear-free future, Swinson has said she would be happy to drop a nuclear bomb, killing millions of people. (Politicians, please read the harrowing accounts of Hiroshima survivors before you say stuff like this. At the very least, watch Threads.) These were once central pillars of Liberal Democrat thought, from Charles Kennedy to Paddy Ashdown and even to Nick Clegg, but in 2019 they’re now considered beyond the pale. The Lib Dem pitch to voters today is essentially: everything stays the same, but somehow worse. Inspiring stuff!

All of which brings us to the one clear policy that the Liberal Democrats do have, which is to revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit. I can understand the appeal of this. Things have felt chaotic since the EU referendum, and any progressively minded person will be disgusted by the rise in racist attacks since then, and the government’s policy and rhetoric around migration and Brexit. If this is your first election, then I can imagine the EU referendum being just as much a politicising moment as the Iraq War was for me. But to enact this policy would require the Lib Dems to win a majority, something that even their most ardent supporters know is impossible – despite what their bar charts might say. And what good is stopping Brexit if there are no other policies in your manifesto that offer a positive vision beyond that? All we’d be doing is returning to 2015, a time that was still miserable, even if it seemed a bit more stable.

What is the Liberal Democrats’ pitch to the portion of the electorate who voted to leave the European Union in the first place? You were wrong, so get stuffed? Labour’s Brexit policy may not lend itself to soundbites as easily as the Lib Dems’ sloganeering, but it feels like the most democratic way forward. The 2016 referendum never offered voters the terms on which they would leave the European Union, but Labour’s Brexit referendum would at least give Leave voters the option to split from the EU without sacrificing workers’ rights or leaving the NHS vulnerable to any future US trade deals, while giving Remain voters the option to stay. A second referendum was once the Liberal Democrats’ stated goal, and it was only with this election that they decided to adopt their hardcore Remain stance. It allows them to attack Labour as ‘not being Remain enough’, but it undermines the seriousness with which they’re treating the issue.

I understand that there are still reasons that some people might vote Lib Dem. I guess some people must genuinely like their policies, although the idea of someone being enthusiastic about a ‘Skills Wallet’, or accruing more debt to pay for a deposit just to rent a place to live, sounds more nightmarish to me than any David Lynch film.

Then there are tactical reasons. I generally believe that a party should give you something to vote for, not just something to vote against, but if you live in a Tory/Lib Dem marginal like Guildford, Lewes, or Esher & Walton, then a vote for the Lib Dems could help stop a Tory majority. It’s worth comparing the results of the 2017 election in your constituency to recent polls like YouGov’s recent MRP projection before you make any decision about this. Don’t outsource your vote to a tactical voting guide, which are often based on unreliable constituency polling or old data that doesn’t reflect the ways that people vote in general elections. Don’t vote Lib Dem in a seat that’s currently held by Labour. And definitely don’t vote for ex-Tories like Sam Gyimah or Phillip Lee, people who until recently were more than happy to stay in the Conservative Party while they inflicted untold damage on the most vulnerable people in the UK.

Otherwise, a vote for the Liberal Democrats in an area they can’t win would just split the chances of a Labour government who offer a genuinely hopeful vision for the UK. I tried to cast a progressive vote for the Lib Dems in 2010, but all I ended up doing was ‘progressively’ voting for a Tory government. Don’t make the same mistake I made – the Liberal Democrats are not your friends.