Jo Swinson interview: part 2 – first steps in politics and what it’s like to be a young woman at Westminster

In yesterday’s first part of the interview, Jo spoke of how she entered politics and why. In today’s excerpt, she talks about what it is like to be a young woman in politics and how she dealt with it….


From watching you on YouTube and from sitting opposite you here listening to you speak, you come across as very confident and it’s difficult to imagine you suffer from nerves. When you were 21 years old and stood for parliament, were you nervous? And do you still get nervous nowadays?

Of course. I was nervous going up against the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in his constituency of Hull East. And yes, I have been nervous many times since. I was even nervous today when making a speech at Conference. In fact, it was the first speech I have made since losing my seat in 2015. There was a little flutter in the pit of my stomach when I stood up to go to the rostrum.

I certainly had that same feeling many times as a Member of Parliament. I vividly remember my first question to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Question Time would always make me nervous, even after doing it so many times. Often in politics, as in much of business, there’s a premium put on people who are able to act as if they have everything under control and that they have the answer for everything. That can be quite misleading if you assume its supreme confidence that’s driving this.

I think people do get nervous. It’s entirely natural to be nervous, and we shouldn’t be afraid to admit it. We should not have people in our party or elsewhere thinking that because they feel nervous about something they couldn’t become a candidate or put themselves forward for a particular project, promotion or role. Being nervous is part of life; it’s whether or not you let it hold you back.

Do you think nerves can be a good thing?

Definitely. In order to perform it can give you an edge. There have been times when I’ve been more nervous than I wanted to be and, subsequently, it’s had a negative impact on my performance. I remember having to follow Shirley Williams in a debate on all women shortlists in 2001. I think I made a good speech and we did win the debate, but I was not in a good place with nerves at that time. I would have preferred to be far less nervous. I think a bit of nerves can be positive. In fact, if you stop feeling an element of nerves then there is a real danger of complacency.

Looking back on your more formative years in politics, do you feel that you suffered discrimination for being young and a woman?

It’s an interesting question. If you had asked me at 27, I probably would have given you a different answer. I always used to say ‘No, I don’t experience sexism.’ It is true that I didn’t have people telling me I couldn’t do something because I was a woman. I frequently encountered people who assumed I couldn’t do something because I was a woman and then being surprised when I was able to do it. Some people assumed I wasn’t an MP but a researcher, and they were visibly shocked when they realised that I was actually an MP. It happened to me as a minister as well.

The combination of being both young and a woman made both things more obvious. A young man or an older woman would not necessarily be an issue, but if you were a young woman in politics people thought that was strange. I know this because young men of a similar age to me weren’t always talked about as being young. Whereas, I would be. Articles would be written about how I was a rising star. Yet, similar articles written on the male MPs who had arrived at parliament the same time as me and had been promoted more quickly, but somehow I was the one deemed to have had a fast-promotion. Put it this way, there was a lot of double standards and many assumptions that, as a young woman, I couldn’t be taken seriously and I had to prove I could be.

I wouldn’t have described it at the time as discrimination. Later, what I came to observe was that there is a default to people that we know and to the people who look like us. The informal decision making structures in politics within our party, and its true in other parties too, are more of a boys club. It’s, perhaps, not as obvious when you are 25, as either a man or woman, when you are further away from those structures anyway. In later years, it became more obvious to me.

Do you think times have changed? Hypothetically, if a young Jo Swinson was to enter parliament now, do you think she would experience discrimination and would be subject to the same preconceived prejudices?
Do the media still have double standards regarding women?

Absolutely. Do we still end up with cliques of decisions being made by groups of blokes? Yes.

The word ‘discrimination’ is an interesting one. It didn’t stop me getting elected and it didn’t prevent me from becoming a minister, but to suggest that this wasn’t or isn’t an issue in our party is being blind to something that is absolutely there. For example, I attended the 21st Century Economy – Policy Working Group consultation session yesterday, and the ratio of those in attendance was four men to one woman. Some will say that the women were equally able to come along to the session, and that is possibly true. I don’t know what the split is for men and women who are registered for Conference, but we do know what the splits are on the Conference stage, on our parliamentary party and among the informal structures of the party.

Have times changed? Some things have improved; some things haven’t.

After two unsuccessful election campaigns, you finally entered the Commons at the age of 25 as MP for East Dunbartonshire. For several years, you were the youngest MP, or the Baby of the House as it is commonly known, what was that experience like? What were the positives and the negatives?

There were some advantages and some disadvantages. As the youngest MP you are pigeon holed, which is a negative. It was easier for people to forget the age of the MPs who were only a year or two older than me because the label wasn’t attached to them. On the positive side, it would sometimes be good for your profile. As with being a woman MP, as opposed to a man MP, the broadcasters wanted to perceive a level of balance in their coverage, so more opportunities to do media interviews came my way. Of course, that’s an advantage, but you still have all the baggage and disadvantage that comes with it, the same as the endemic throughout society. In a sense, I don’t know what it was like not to be the youngest MP, not for four years anyway.

I think parliament needs a mix of ages. That’s one of the difficulties about keeping a parliament that’s representative. At least when you increase the representation of underrepresented groups, typically, those characteristics will remain for the duration of the time that they are elected. When you elect a younger MP that isn’t the case because they get older each day. Therefore, it’s particularly important we nurture the talent and interest of our party’s younger members, including to become candidates rather than thinking that they have plenty of time and can do it in 20 years. Yes, they might be able to do it in 20 years, but we do need some of those young people to be standing now and to be elected. That way, we, in our party and in parliament, can have a proper mix represented.

You mentioned that by being the youngest MP you had greater access to the press. Do you think they gave you a harder time or, because you were the youngest, were easier on you?

I don’t think they gave me a harder or an easier time because I was the youngest MP. It did lead to some weird requests. The day after I was elected, a tabloid newspaper wanted to illustrate a story with a picture of me in my school uniform. I said ‘No, I’m not doing that’. Without a doubt, as with other women in the public eye, the media is sexist in terms of its portrayal of politicians. That was part of my lived experience of being an MP.

In tomorrow’s excerpt, Jo talks about some of her campaigns and the impact of social media…

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

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This entry was posted in Interviews.

One Comment

  • Sue Sutherland 3rd May '17 - 12:40pm

    If the amazing happens and we win a large number of seats in this election I would love us to blow a gust of fresh air into parliament by refusing to know tow to the established conventions. I do hope Jo gets in and can encourage this to happen.

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