We Asked Jo Swinson About Boris, Brexit, Corbyn & Of Course…Tuition Fees

Thirty-nine-year-old Jo Swinson is the youngest person and first woman to lead the Liberal Democrat party. And as we hurtle towards a general election on 12th December which will decide Britain’s future – inside the European Union or outside of it; led by the Conservatives, Labour or a coalition – she is also the youngest of the three main political party leaders vying for our votes. 
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, is 55 years old and the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is 70. That makes Swinson 16 or 31 years younger than them, respectively. It also puts her in a completely different generation. 
She is – by the skin of her teeth – a millennial. She’s also juggling her job, an election campaign and motherhood. She has a 5-year-old son and had another child just last year. That’s nothing new to her, though. When she was a minister in the coalition government she was still breastfeeding her eldest and was vocal in her condemnation of the incompatibility of parenthood with a parliamentary career. 
Last year, she made history when her then 11-week-old son became the first baby to be taken into the House of Commons chamber. There she stood, smiling, with him strapped to her front as a debate unfolded around them.
Today, she’s visiting a centre operated by the homeless charity Crisis in east London. We catch up after she’s spent the morning hearing from young women who have recently experienced homelessness and I watch as she listens to what they’re saying and responds. "I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through," she says to one, looking genuinely moved. 
Afterwards, we chat as she makes her way by car to her next engagement in a packed schedule. A row is erupting over sexist comments made by the prime minister – who has had multiple extramarital affairs resulting in an unknown number of children – in a 1995 Spectator column. In it he remarked on an "appalling" growth of single mothers who, as he saw it, were "uppity and irresponsible" for getting pregnant in the first place. He then went on to describe the children of single mums as "ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate."

I made a speech just this morning about the sorts of things that Boris Johnson is happy to say about women, about people of colour – that's not the kind of person that I want in Number 10. It should be somebody that the whole country can look up to. He's just not someone that I want setting an example to my two kids. 

Jo Swinson
Swinson – who has written a book about sexism and how to overcome it, called Equal Power – lights up when I ask her about gender equality. 
"I made a speech just this morning," she says, "about the sorts of things that Boris Johnson is happy to say about women, about people of colour – that’s not the kind of person that I want in Number 10. It should be somebody that the whole country can look up to. He’s just not someone that I want setting an example to my two kids." 
It is poignant to hear a female party leader challenging Johnson. Our last woman prime minister, Theresa May, who once described herself as a feminist, shied away from addressing sexism explicitly even as game-changing movements such as #MeToo unfolded around her once she got to Number 10.  
Swinson has never been squeamish when it comes to talking about womanhood. Earlier this year she tweeted viscerally about her most recent birth, which took place at her home, illustrating each tweet with a suitably appropriate meme. 
She described "that odd crunching contraction feeling", "throwing up in the downstairs loo" and being "on all fours, roaring" while waiting for her midwife to arrive. I suggest that simply hearing women in positions of power tell stories like this is still remarkable because it is rare, which tells us something important about how far we have to go. Would she still talk in such personal detail were she, one day, to become prime minister?
"I hope so!" she says. "On that particular occasion, it was the anniversary of Gabriel’s birth so I was reflecting and feeling very emotional about it. I remember when I was pregnant that hearing about other people’s experiences was very useful, so I think that sharing our experiences can demystify childbirth."
From the sharing of sexual assault and harassment stories on social media to MPs like Labour’s Rosie Duffield standing up in parliament and speaking candidly about her time in an abusive relationship, it feels as though women’s stories are doing a lot of hard work across the board right now. 
"They are," Swinson says, "and I think it is a good thing because it is about these experiences being reflected but I do think the fact that women’s stories are seen as unusual also underlines how much of the general narrative is not as neutral as we would like. If you look at who is writing newspapers and making decisions about what goes on the front pages, the subset of people behind all of that is not representative."
She is clearly passionate about wanting to change this any way she can. And she's put her money where her mouth is. As we all know, the cost of childcare is a key reason why we still have a gender pay gap because it poses a huge barrier which prevents many women from working full-time. 
"This," Swinson tells me, "is why [childcare] is the single biggest spending commitment in our manifesto." The Liberal Democrats' commitment to provide free childcare for working parents from 9 months and for all parents of children between 2 and 4 years old will cost the state almost £14 billion a year by the end of the parliament, and has been described as "eye watering"
It's worth noting that Labour has also pledged to pump money into new early-years centres to help parents get back to work.
Unexciting as it may sound, particularly in comparison to "broadband communism", this is radical. Without such spending commitments there is no way that we will ever close the gender pay gap or achieve true gender equality. That’s why feminists have been asking for free childcare since the first national conference of the Women’s Liberation Movement was held in Oxford in 1970
However, despite all of the above, for swathes of younger voters the idea of casting their ballot in favour of the centrist pro-Europe party Swinson heads up is thorny to say the least. We all remember where we were for the tuition fees protests of 2010, whether that was being kettled in Parliament Square, watching it on the news at home and realising that education was about to get more expensive at £9,000 a year, or from uni, perhaps feeling relief that we were among the last students to pay £3,000. 

From my personal perspective [what happened with tuition fees] is something I've learned from. I've learned to trust my instincts on these things in terms of how you can challenge when decisions are being made that aren't right. 

As she gets ready to head to her next event I ask Swinson what she thinks about this now. After all, she was in the coalition government that raised university fees and voted in favour of it. What, I wonder, would she say to the younger generations who – regardless of the fact that they’re more likely than older voters to be pro-Europe – feel betrayed by what happened during that vote on 10th November 2010, when the Lib Dems voted with the Conservatives?
"What I would say," she begins, without hesitation, "is: 'I’m sorry, we got that wrong.' I recognise that and I have learned from that experience. We should not have done that in the coalition."
She pauses thoughtfully before adding: "From my personal perspective [what happened with tuition fees] is something which I’ve learned from. I’ve learned to trust my instincts on these things in terms of how you can challenge when decisions are being made that aren’t right." 
Stopping just short of saying she regrets voting in favour of the fee hikes, Swinson then compares the complete U-turn her party made on tuition fees to Brexit. "You can see this in our position on Brexit," she says. "We are absolutely sticking to our values, to our principles and what we are putting forward for a brighter future." It’s clear from her tone that Swinson understands why some people feel conflicted about the possibility of voting Lib Dem. 
"Ultimately," she says, "I feel that what we are proposing with remaining in the EU is fundamentally so important to people’s future opportunities and it’s incredibly important that we have Liberal Democrat MPs if we want to stop Brexit because we’re the party that is committed to doing that."
She then takes aim at Jeremy Corbyn, adding pointedly: "We’ve got a Labour party leader who says they’ll be neutral on the issue." 
A lot of criticism is levelled at Jo Swinson, particularly online. Much of it has been as a result of her criticisms of Corbyn. However, were we to see a hung parliament on 13th December, she could well find herself having to work with either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn very closely. 
Does she absolutely rule out working with Corbyn? "I work with people in the Labour party all the time," she says steadfastly, "and I work with anyone who wants to stop Brexit. I work with people in the Conservative party, Plaid Cymru, the SNP – I’m not a tribal politician. I will work cooperatively. In particular there’s a great cross-party feminist lobby in parliament, which is a joy to be part of, where we all support each other in various campaigns – and we’ve won, just look at Stella Creasy’s work on abortion rights... But as I say, I do think Jeremy Corbyn has let down people who voted Remain."
The last time this country went to the polls, in 2017, the vast majority of people who voted chose between the two main political parties: Conservative and Labour. So the idea being posited by some pollsters that we could see a hung parliament or coalition as we did in 2010 may not be reflected in the results.
We are still riding out the political uncertainty that followed in the aftermath of the EU referendum, but what’s certain is that Jo Swinson is committed to stopping Brexit and cementing the Liberal Democrats as a party for Remainers who cannot find their political home elsewhere. Whether younger generations can ever forgive the Lib Dems for the tuition fees debacle, though, remains to be seen. 

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