For someone who might be about to lose her seat, Jo Swinson seems very perky as she walks the streets of Bishopbriggs in her constituency. The Lib Dem, who is standing for re-election in East Dunbartonshire in Scotland, is busy trying to persuade people who have received their postal votes this week to back her.
The weather is sunny and warm and the Business and Equalities Minister cheerful, but the outlook isn’t quite so good when you take a glance at the numbers. A poll by Lord Ashcroft last week put the SNP on 40 per cent, with Swinson trailing behind on 29 per cent. That’s a 19.5 per cent swing to the SNP in the seat which Swinson first won in 2005 with a 4,061 majority, which then reduced to 2,184 in 2010.
The Lib Dems have conducted their own seat polling which - unlike Ashcroft's - mentions the candidate’s name. This put Swinson on 34.5 per cent, the SNP on 32.1 per cent, Labour on 16.2 per cent, the Greens on 2 and Ukip on 0.7 per cent. In private Swinson’s colleagues are far more upbeat about her prospects than they are about Danny Alexander’s fight to retain his seat.
Swinson is also a proper local campaigner. Everyone we meet seems to have had a problem that she’s sorted out. ‘You fixed my drains!’ is something several householders exclaim as they open the door (they mean she got the council to do it, I assume, though Swinson does tell one man she used to be a girl guide, which makes me wonder if she has actually personally fixed some drains too). Even the voters who aren’t backing her say ‘I’ve got to say, you do a lot for this area. Well done.’
She also behaves like someone used to pounding pavements. When we’re knocking on doors in a sheltered housing complex, she makes sure that the fire doors don’t swing noisily shut after her, instead shutting them gently herself. This is the sort of thing people who don’t bother to knock on doors very often don’t do, because they don’t realise how much striding noisily through someone else’s property annoys them.
I had wondered why Swinson, whose constituency is clearly on a knife edge at best, seems so happy when many Scottish Labour MPs look shell-shocked by the explosion of SNP support in areas they thought would always belong to their party. Is she a delusional optimist, or is there something in it? Perhaps the difference is this: that while those shell-shocked MPs are having to learn how to run a proper doorstep campaign, it’s a habit for Swinson and so she feels as though she’s already doing everything she can to hold the seat.
But what is she saying when voters open their doors? Given this is postal vote week, Swinson is only knocking on the doors of those who are voting in this way. She has already sent out a handwritten letter to those voters (well, a letter that she hand-wrote but which her office has then printed and stuffed into handwritten envelopes so that voters are more likely to read them). When they open their door, many of them say ‘I’ve just read your letter,’ in a genuinely pleased manner.
Then the tactics begin. Labour was the second party in this constituency in 2010, but now it is in third place. Given few SNP voters are likely to switch back to Swinson, it’s more a case of squeezing this Labour vote for all it is worth. The Lib Dem candidate tries to explain the choice to those voters:
‘There’s a real danger in this constituency that the SNP will get in, so I know you normally vote Labour, but I wondered whether just for this election, you’ll consider giving your vote to me?’
Most of the people we meet say ‘I’m Labour, dear,’ and look baffled at the idea of giving their vote to another party. They don’t much like Nicola Sturgeon - save one woman who knows the SNP leader personally - but the question, Swinson says, is whether they hate the SNP enough to resort to tactical voting to keep the party out. Even though Sturgeon is often just referred to as ‘her’ on the doorstep, like a sort of political Voldemort, the people we meet don’t seem to hate the SNP leader or her party with a particularly strong passion. It’s more the sort of dislike that causes someone to switch channels when a TV presenter they find irritating pops up.
Swinson is also trying to encourage those who have already sealed their envelopes with a Lib Dem vote inside to show off their support for the party on the streets. Would they like a poster in their garden? she asks, getting them to sign a consent form for another Lib Dem team to turn up and drive a stake into a flowerbed with a large ‘Winning here!’ diamond on it. One woman signs up. It’s a good spot for a poster, Swinson, remarks happily, as lots of cars will pass it on the road. But further down the road, another resident in a good spot asks whether he’ll get the ‘brick through the window routine’ if he puts a stake in his garden. After Swinson offers him a slightly more low-key orange poster for the window - complete with girl guide blu-tack already on it - he declines because his wife isn’t comfortable with it.
In other seats where the Lib Dems are looking very strong, such as Eastbourne, orange party posters are as prominent as the spring blossom in residential roads. Not here in East Dunbartonshire, where the Lib Dem support seems rather quieter, and the SNP hatred rather too muted for anyone to call this seat either way.