Jo Swinson interview: part 1 – an introduction and life before politics

Prior to this interview, I obviously knew who Jo Swinson was and was aware of some of the issues she has championed over her 10 years in office but, while researching her, I was surprised to find that a relatively young politician had been actively involved in so many campaigns. Jo’s avid use of social media combined with her willingness to openly and energetically support these causes has clearly enhanced her profile. Jo was one of the first politicians to take new and modem forms of technology seriously. She joined Twitter shortly after it went live and a simple YouTube search of her name brings up a seemingly endless array of pages.

Interviewer and interviewee…

I met with Jo at the 2017 Liberal Democrats Spring Conference in York. The exquisite Hilton Hotel in Tower Street kindly offered the use of their Lendal Suite. The interview occurred before Jo announced her candidacy for the upcoming General Election (and indeed before Theresa May’s surprise announcement). Therefore, I was unable to ask about her upcoming challenge to win back East Dunbartonshire from the SNP’s ‎John Nicolson. I did, however, question Jo on whether she would return to frontline politics. Also, an issue that Jo has, by her own words, been on ‘an interesting journey’ with has (again) become a hot topic in the run up to 8 June: women in parliament, more specifically the policy of positive discrimination (last Monday, 24 April, Radio 4 discussed this issue during a programme titled ‘General Election 2017 and Women at Westminster’ where Sarah Olney was on the panel – available on BBC iPlayer Radio). Jo presents an interesting and critical appraisal of her party’s attitude (historic and contemporary) towards positive discrimination.

More broadly, I particularly wanted to discuss Jo’s tireless work on tackling gender inequality. Although she had (at the time of interview) withdrawn from mainstream politics, Jo was still involved with this issue and is clearly passionate about it. Jo also spoke about some of the other issues she has worked on along with her views on certain topical matters of the day outside of the Lib Dems.


Can you tell me a bit about your childhood?

I had a very happy childhood. I grew up in the area where I ended up representing – a town called Milngavie in Scotland. It was a lovely quality of life. I was not far from Glasgow or the beautiful countryside of west Scotland. My mum was a primary school teacher, and my dad worked in economic development. I have an older sister who is a psychiatrist.

It wasn’t a particularly political upbringing. I was interested in debating at school and when my dad started to support the Alliance, I’d help him deliver Focus leaflets. But the politics came later in my teenage years. I received unstinting support from my parents and encouragement to keep asking questions. That spirit of curiosity has been very useful in politics.

You became an MP at a very young age, in your mid-twenties. Did you have a working life before that?

Yes. I graduated from LSE when I was 20. I started university at 17, as the Scottish education system is slightly different from the English in terms of the starting age. I worked as a marketing manager for a small company through a scheme with Sheffield Hallam University. Then for an EMAP radio station in Hull. After that, I worked for a high growth start-up media company in Glasgow. Then I was briefly employed by an organisation called the UK Public Health Association (UKPHA) in a communications role. My background is in marketing and PR and mainly in the commercial sector with a combination of large and small companies.

How did these experiences help you in your political life?

The understanding of the business world was certainly helpful. The reason I was attracted to roles in the communication and marketing sphere was because of a natural interest in how to communicate, and that’s obviously a big part of politics. My degree was in Business Management, and that was an element I found very attractive to start with.

It worked both ways for me. My business career has been helpful politically, but also my political experience has been useful in those jobs. Through doing politics at a young age, and this is the advantages of it for young people who are either still in education or are in the early years of their career, you get the responsibility to organise events, negotiate, work out how to come to policy decisions and to make things happen. You get to do all of this at a level of responsibility that, at that stage, you may not get in a career sense. For example, when I stood in Hull East in 2001 at just 21 years of age, I had to motivate a team of volunteers. I had to ensure we delivered the campaign. If you can motivate a team of volunteers, you’ve already developed a lot of those skills when you come to motivating a team of paid staff.

Sadly, the last thing on most youngsters’ minds is running for parliament. Why politics and how come you were so interested at such a young age?

From a very young age, I wanted to challenge injustice where I saw it. This was before I had even considered them political actions. Somewhere in my parents’ loft, I probably still have the letters I wrote to my MP and the responses I received. This ranged from taxation to fox hunting. I wrote to government ministers about things like sex education in schools. I saw things I wanted to change even on a very small scale. I was on my school council and thought it ridiculous that girls weren’t allowed to wear trousers as part of the school uniform. I was always in the mode of trying to change things.

I didn’t join the Lib Dems until I was at university, but I had already identified where my political leanings were. I was cheering them on at the 1997 election, and I wasn’t even a member of the party then. It was a pretty good night for us that year, by the way. In the months following, I joined the party. Politics was slowly becoming part of my life.

When I joined, a pivotal moment for me was the Activate Weekend, organised by the then Lib Dem Youth and Students now the Young Liberals. This was really an introduction to the party and, crucially, to meet other youngsters who were involved from all ends of the country. This gave me the confidence to attend my first party conference, which was in Brighton, at the age of 18 in 1998. I knew I would at least know a few other people there, and I didn’t look back. I was elected onto the Lib Dem Youth and Student’s National Executive. I made my first speech at the following conference. It snowballed to the extent that, a few years later, someone suggested I stand for parliament so, after thinking about it, I did. At that point, I was not anticipating that it would become a serious job but saw it as an interesting experience. I stood in one of the many seats where a Lib Dem candidate could be very confident they wouldn’t win!

Why the Lib Dems?

The two things that attracted me to the Lib Dems were education and proportional representation. This was at the time when we had the policy of a penny on income tax for education. This was the prime example of the party’s fundamental commitment to the development of the individual through education, which is the cornerstone to achieving individual liberty. That was a hugely attractive element of the party for me in terms of philosophy.

I know I will sound really geeky when discussing proportional representation. While I was growing up, you could not imagine my constituency being anything but Labour. In the west of Scotland, you could have put up any stuffed animal with a red rosette and they would have won. It didn’t matter who you voted for you would end up with Labour. Therefore, if you voted Labour your vote wasn’t needed; if you voted for anyone else your vote wouldn’t count. The irony was that I won the seat through boundary changes then lost it to the SNP. Anyway, I’d studied proportional representation in Modern Studies at school, and it was such an obvious no-brainer to me that to adopt it would make our democratic system work better. And it was the Lib Dems who were championing it.

Tomorrow, Jo talks about events from her first Parliamentary campaign in 2001, life in Parliament and some of her campaigns…

* Rob May is a Political History PhD student and Lib Dem activist.

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