From the Glasgow Evening Times
IT’S early, but outside Westminster, it’s already a living picture postcard. The tourists are out in force with their cameras, dodging red London buses to photograph the Mother of Parliaments.
The youngest MP in Britain slips past unnoticed despite the red trouser suit. (“Well, have you ever tried wearing yellow?” she demands very reasonably.)
Jo Swinson may not remain anonymous for long. The LibDem MP for East Dunbartonshire is one to watch. There’s steel behind the laughter.
Jo is 25 and could easily pass for the schoolgirl she was not that long ago, but it would be naive to underestimate her.
She was just a schoolgirl when Margaret Thatcher was in power and her politics are very different, but there is just a hint of another Iron Lady in the making.
“I wouldn’t say she was a role model,” she grinned. “But she knew her own mind.”
As Jo seems to. And when she has made it up, she is not for turning either.
Just one example. Approached by the veteran and venerable PA correspondent Chris Moncrieff, she gives him short shrift, firmly resisting several requests to provide him with her mobile number. He is clearly astonished. Perhaps it has never happened to him before.
There is a buzz among the LibDems in the aftermath of the best General Election result in the Liberal tradition for 80 years.
Raring to go, the new girl was at Westminster by 9am.
And although it will be two or three weeks before she is allocated a Westminster office
of her own, she is already in her element and wading through the bumff that has landed on her non-existent desk.
She has been warned there are three miles of corridors and she spent part of her first day wandering down the wrong ones.
As we wend our way towards the Stranger’s Dining Room (where a coffee and tea costs a really cheap 55p, all in), the main impression is that she seems to have joined a large, friendly club. Everywhere, there are hugs and good wishes from fellow LibDems.
The first time Jo was in the Commons, she wasn’t much impressed, but then she was
only seven and coming down with chicken pox.
There was a previous attempt at Westminster when she stood against Labour Deputy Leader John Prescott in Hull East in 2001 and she also contested Strathkelvin & Bearsden in
the elections for the Scottish Parliament in 2003.
But third time lucky. She comes across as coolly efficient, but also idealistic, and driven and eager to set the world to rights.
A cynic might say that will soon get knocked out of her in the rough-and-tumble that is Westminster. Jo herself would say they’re wrong.
“Certainly, I don’t think I’m going to change the world overnight.
“I suppose it’s about being realistic about what you can achieve, but if you’re not at least a little bit idealistic, then I would perhaps question what you are doing in politics. It’s got to be about vision, it’s got to be about driving things forward.”
The charismatic leader of the Welsh LibDems, Lembit Opik, who has known Jo since she was involved in student politics and who flew his four-seater plane up to Glasgow to support her campaign, agrees.
“Jo is an idealist in the sense that she really believes things can be better, but I don’t think she will let herself get disillusioned.
Rather than that, she’ll turn her idealism into getting results and that’s the refreshing thing about people like Jo because they are not embarrassed to still believe in ideals.
“Maybe, that’s what’s gone wrong with the old parties but it’s certainly what’s right with her.
“Everyone who has worked with her knows that she is a fighter, not a quitter and that’s why she’s here.
“She has two strengths – one is clarity of purpose. She knows what she wants to do here and that focus is priceless in politics.
“It means she won’t be swayed by fashion. She’ll be focussed on what she wants to achieve. And secondly, she has a determination to make it happen.”
That is good news for Jo’s constituency, for she has already pledged to help with the Stobhill campaign and is particularly interested in pensions, a major concern for her constituents, many of whom are older.
It is the people who have known her all her life who voted her into power and her constituents, she promises, will get someone who will pull out all the stops for them.
She is a local girl, born and brought up in Milngavie, the daughter of Peter Swinson, a consultant for economic regeneration, currently working in Bucharest, and Annette, a primary teacher.
She credits the debating society at Douglas Academy with inspiring her interest in politics.
“We used to do parliamentary debates and that was when my interest was sparked.
“But as long as I can remember, I had an interest – not just in party politics but in injustices or things that I thought are wrong.”
Her next big challenge is her maiden speech in the House and she confesses she gets nervous.
“I was terrified, absolutely terrified at the party conference just after the General Election in 2001. I was speaking against the proposal that we should have all women shortlists much as Labour has done.
“I had to speak after Shirley Williams, who was speaking in favour. But I was really passionate about the issue and we did win the debate.”
After gaining a first in economics at the London School of Economics, Jo worked as a PR manager with Yorkshire’s Viking Radio and as a development officer with the UK Public Health Association Scotland.
She said: “I think it came home to me when I was fighting the 2001 election. I had a brilliant job organising pop concerts and all sorts of stuff, and it was great fun.
“But I was really coming to the conclusion that what I was really enjoying and feeling passionate about was politics and I realised work was a distraction from what I really wanted to do.”
Now that we have Holyrood, there are some who would claim that Westminster is irrelevant and that our MPs are a disappearing species.
She will have none of it. “I certainly don’t tend to disappear and will be very active and visible in East Dunbartonshire.
“In my view, it is important to form a good relationship with MSPs because ultimately you’re wanting to provide a good service for the constituents.”
When she is not being on-message, Jo is quite fun with much the same interests, she insists, as any other 25-year-old.
She likes pop music as well as classical and shops at Oasis.
But any mention of her boyfriend, fellow LibDem Duncan Hames, who came a close second in Westbury in Wiltshire, and she clams up except to say that he is ‘very supportive’.
Her focus, she insists, is the job ahead.
“I would like to go round the constituency in four years time and find people saying it’s made a difference. We’ve known who our MP is, we’ve known how we can get in touch with you (not through her mobile probably), we’ve heard what you’re doing.”