The ageing denizens of Westminster are choking on the causes Jo Swinson champions, from the fight against airbrushing to parents sharing maternity leave. Eva Wiseman heads for the House to meet a woman working from the inside
It was the weekend following my meeting with Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson that she went into anaphylactic shock at the Bishopbriggs Colossal Cake sale in Scotland. She had a severe reaction to a nutty cake. After a night in hospital, where she credits doctors with “saving her life”, she was back at work in the morning. Meeting her, you get the sense she doesn’t really believe in time off.
Her energy is infectious – it’s partly the speed she talks at and the fact that you believe her when she insists she chose this job, this life, purely because she wanted to change the world. We first met when she was chairing a body-image inquiry, but I’ve followed her career for a while, the way you do sometimes – a face you look out for in the paper, a voice you trust on Question Time. She fascinates me, I think, because we’re the same age, and interested in the same things, but live our lives so differently. It is also because she’s a youngish, noisy feminist, like me and my friends, but one that exists in parliament, a foreign country. The call’s coming from inside the House.
One of the reasons she interests me is because so many of her campaigns are accessible – things you don’t need a working knowledge of financial markets to engage with – but this has led to criticism in the past. When, as junior minister for women and equalities, she announced her body-image campaign, a Guardian interview questioned her decision to concentrate on such a “soft, fuzzy” issue and asked whether her time might be better spent addressing women’s unemployment and benefit cuts. I could see the point – I was quietly cynical about the effect of her campaigns for kite marks on adverts stating whether the images had been manipulated (I always think of that Tina Fey quote: “Photoshop itself is not evil. Just like Italian salad dressing is not inherently evil, until you rub it all over a desperate young actress and stick her on the cover of Maxim“) and I was curious to see what impact the government could have on a problem such as body image, one that really has no clear solution. But meeting her a year on, I realise the aim of this campaign was not solely to solve this problem, but that it was just one part of her larger work – to change the culture entirely.
This is one of the things she discussed (after a noted media silence) following the sexual harassment allegations against her colleague, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard. As minister for women, it became clear she had been aware of allegations for some time but refused to comment while the party was carrying out its own investigations. “It’s not just a problem in politics,” she said eventually in a conference speech. “The year is 2013, but society is stuck in the past.” She stressed that a fairer society is only possible if “we challenge the casual culture where men are dominant by default”.
I really want her to tell me the story here – I want to know what happened, what she knew, and how she felt, but she can’t, or she won’t. She refers me to her conference speech, and this is how it is. I realise that this is one of the places I differ from a politician. I’d be tempted to spill.
Now 33, Swinson started young. In 2005 she was elected MP for her hometown, East Dunbartonshire, and became the “baby of the House”, the first-ever MP to be born in the 1980s. “My mum used to send me cuttings from the local paper about people who’d got married as a kind of ‘hint hint’. But then there was one cutting about my home seat’s boundary changes, and how it might be good for the Liberal Democrats, and I knew this was an opportunity.” Although she first drew attention for her youth, she continued to rise through the party because of her initiative. And then, after five years as an opposition MP, in 2010 she became a government minister.
We’re sitting in her office at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a building that appears half-built – signs for toilets take you to unfinished rooms. We both take a sip of water.
Does it feel different being a Liberal Democrat now? “Now?” Now that people are more… critical? She takes a rare pause. “Well, we still have our social events, with the raffles that never seem to end. There’s a lot that continues. And it’s not like we were used to having fantastic poll ratings anyway. Before, people had a vague idea of the Liberal Democrats, and put their own views on to what we might be – there were a lot of people voting for us as a party of protest, and being in government, that doesn’t happen now. But in many people’s minds there was a general nice but fluffy image of the Liberal Democrats. And that’s different now. It’s sharpened up.”
One of only seven female Lib Dem MPs (22% of MPs in Westminster are women), Swinson talks a lot about the problem of representation, and yet there’s a weariness to the conversation. There’s been much written about the lack of women in parliament – a recent Vogue feature by Ann Treneman was peppered with eye-drying facts, such as: there are more MPs named John than women in total. Yvette Cooper pointed out that in 1997 the Palace of Westminster had a shooting range but no creche. Again, Swinson discusses the need for a change in culture. “And then also cultural barriers, when people don’t see role models like themselves in science…” I interrupt – “Or politics?” “Mmm, or media, or the lobby at Westminster, where it’s massively male, both in government and in the journalists reporting on what’s going on.”
But how does change happen? Acknowledging that these problems exist is not enough. “The piece of legislation that I’m so excited and delighted to be doing is shared parental leave.” She’s helped push through a system that will allow new parents to choose how they share a year’s worth of leave after the birth of their child. “And changing that legislation is a really good example of how we’re not going to change culture overnight, but how the government has a role to make sure the structures in place reflect modern living.”
Treneman says she suspects men are drawn to politics for its power, whereas women are attracted by the opportunity to make a difference. Does Swinson think a male MP would have fought so hard for this legislation? She sighs, and I blush. “I’m a massive feminist,” she says, gesticulating precisely, eye contact unfaltering, “but I think it’s a little unfair on the other sex saying they’re not in it to change the world.”
But the “culture”. We return to the culture. She’s spoken out against quotas, so I’m interested in her solution to the lack of women in the House of Commons. “I think we need the right solution for the right problem,” she says opaquely. “And it might not be the same for every party. So if there is sexism in the selection process then maybe you do need quotas. But in our party, the problem was far too few women candidates coming forward for seats.” She says they’re making progress with a leadership programme, encouraging people from under-represented backgrounds to become MPs, but it all comes back to “wider issues around the voting system, and challenges around getting equality within politics”.
Before I leave, I want to find out exactly how it feels to be fighting this fight for women from within a system of men. And more importantly, perhaps, how it feels to have to discuss it so regularly. That weariness was telling. Is it helpful to point out the struggles within parliament, or does it get irritating?
“Let’s put it this way,” she smiles tightly. “I’ll love it when we get to the stage that people don’t even think to ask. Because that’ll be a sign that we’ve got to the stage where the culture is one that’s properly diverse. And with those questions my fear is: do we put women off?” Do we?
“It can be unhelpful when we focus on how male dominated it is. How awful the culture is. I fear that message sometimes, that it’s still a dreadful place. It puts women off – they think they won’t be comfortable here. When in fact it’s much better than it used to be.”
It’s this sluggish move forward she’s particularly making me aware of – first the acknowledgement that there’s a problem, and then the investigation into what brought us to this point, and then, finally, the slow fight, whether against sexual harassment at work or negative body image. Since the body-image inquiry, the marketing director of Boots says that what was acceptable 18 months ago in terms of manipulating and “airbrushing” images is not acceptable now, and I believe her. A politician’s life moves fast, I realise, but the changes they make can feel excruciatingly slow. “The debate is changing,” Swinson says, “because people want it to change.”
Outside, clusters of men walk in suits at speed, and tourists take sly photographs of two in bowler hats. Yet Swinson insists that change is really happening. “There are stories about women MPs pre-1997 that shock me. ‘Melon’ gestures in the chamber when a woman got up to speak? That’s unacceptable these days. It has changed. So I hope women will consider a life in politics. We need women, you see. We need them.”