BethMellor’s Weblog

Postgraduate journalism, news and views.

Jo Swinson: “I want to put Parliament on YouTube”

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Jo Swinson, Britain’s youngest MP, e-mails me back instantly when I contact her to arrange an interview. Either, I think, she must be incredibly efficient or she has too much time on her hands.

But by the time I meet her at the end of the week, the 29-year-old has already appeared on Question Time, led a debate in Parliament on tax credits, and seen the results of her hard work pay-off to force the Government to reverse its position on the publication of MP’s expenses. And this, it seems, is just a normal week’s work for Liberal Democrat Swinson, who is MP for East Dunbartonshire – the constituency where she grew up. In fact, I later find out, the Mail on Sunday reported in January that she was the ‘most active’ Scottish MP in Westminster during 2008, having spoken 58 times in debates and having submitted 220 written questions.

In her cramped office in the eaves of 1 Parliament Street, Swinson signs a stack of letters to new voters in her constituency as she talks about her achievements as the youngest MP in Westminster – a role colloquially known as the ‘Baby of the House.’

“You need to be determined to get into politics. It’s hard to get elected and it’s hard to stay elected,” she says. Indeed, although Swinson was only 25 when she was elected in 2005, she had already stood unsuccessfully twice – in Hull East in the 2001 General Election, where she gained a 6% swing from John Prescott, then-deputy leader of the Labour Party, and in Strathkelvin and Bearsden in the 2003 Scottish Parliamentery election, where she came third. Since being elected in 2005 she has acted as the Liberal Democrat’s Shadow Scotland Secretary and Shadow Spokeswoman for Women and Equality and, at the start of this year, she was appointed to the role of Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.

But Swinson’s first forays into politics were as a student at the London School of Economics, as president of her halls of residence committee and a member of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students organisation (now Liberal Youth), where she played an instrumental role in campaigning to scrap tuition fees.

“I argued for that policy as a student in the Liberal Democrats when it wasn’t universally popular in the party. But we won the argument and it became party policy. Then seeing the Liberal Democrats getting into coalition Government in Scotland and putting it into practice proved to me that it is really possible to make a difference. Students from my constituency now don’t have to pay tuition fees if they go to a Scottish University.”

As for tuition fees at English Universities and for English students attending Scottish Universities, Swinson says that abolishing these will be a policy in the Liberal Democrat manifesto at the next election.

“I dread to think what kind of debts people are graduating with these days, especially with top-up fees. If we are in Government we will be able to put this policy into practice, and if not we will argue for it. Obviously, the more Liberal Democrat MPs we have, the more likely it is to happen – in Scotland we managed to get it through without actually being the largest party.”

And, although she is vague on details, she says that her party will also be pressurising the Government to do more to help this year’s ‘credit crunch graduates’.

“The Government are not doing enough, and I really feel for graduates at the moment. It is hard to get jobs without work experience, so an internship scheme like the one that is being suggested could be very positive in that way. But, at the moment, it only seems to include big businesses, so maybe it should be wider – small businesses need new talent as much as the multinationals do.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly as the youngest MP, Swinson believes that the political system desperately needs modernisation – she advocates lowering the voting age to 16, now an official Liberal Democrat policy, and would like to see the House of Lords overhauled to make it an elected body.

 Most crucially, however, she wants the political system to revamp its image – to become both more accountable and more accessible to the public. To this end, she has launched a campaign to overturn the ban imposed by Parliamentary authorities on posting footage on YouTube or other video streaming sites: ‘Axe the Parliamentary YouTube ban.’

“In the 21st Century I think that it is ridiculous you are not allowed to post clips of Parliament on YouTube, because that is the way that most young people would probably watch Parliament. If it was in bite-sized form people could share clips and rate them.

“This is just one example of why Parliament has a traditional and stuffy image. But it shouldn’t have – we are discussing issues that lots of people care about, so why don’t we just make sure that we are doing it in an accessible way?”

Swinson’s grasp of new media also played a crucial role in her recent campaign to force the Government to abolish its plan to exempt MPs’ expenses from the Freedom of Information Act, for which she tabled a Parliamentary Motion – read more in this blog’s previous post.

Yet despite the success of her campaigning work and the positions of responsibility she has held, Swinson says she says she experienced ageism in her early days in Parliament.

“I remember once on the floor of the House when I asked a question about the lower minimum wage for young people and the Scottish Minister heckled me, saying ‘Are you one of them?’ It wasn’t particularly funny, but it was particularly ironic given that it happened the week after the Government had brought in age discrimination legislation.”

But anyone who might have thought that Swinson’s youth meant that she would not be up to the challenges of her job has underestimated her determination and her passion for the issues. “The number one thing you need to succeed in politics is that you have to care – you just have to give a damn.” And it would be hard for anyone to accuse Scotland’s ‘most active’ MP in Westminster of not fulfilling this requirement of the job description.

Written by bethmellor

February 15, 2009 at 5:40 pm

One Response

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  1. Great interview, Beth, really interesting.
    Shame it came too late for the Profile feature eh?


    February 15, 2009 at 7:51 pm

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