Darren Hughes: Let’s kick off with what we’re about at the ERS! Do you think recent events and politics brings electoral reform back to the agenda?
Jo Swinson: Absolutely, our politics is broken and part of the reason why our politics is broken is because our voting system is broken. First-past-the-post creates a two-party system and our two parties are both split, and it’s breaking down.
It sounds a bit of a geeky point to say that electoral reform is at the heart of a lot of this, but it but it really is and the strategic importance of it I think has never been greater. There were two reasons why I joined the Liberal Democrats back in 1997: one of them was our policy on education and the other was our policy on proportional representation so it’s been a cause close to my heart for more than 20 years.
You’re a Scottish MP representing East Dunbartonshire and we know that local government in Scotland has been transformed by PR. Do you see expanding that into England as part of an agenda that we should be looking at?
JS: Yes, it works well in Scotland we have got rid of the kind of one-party states that dominated a lot of Scotland’s councils and that cooperative way of working between parties is now very much the norm. The other thing it does is it means there are far fewer seats are uncontested. So, that’s down to I think only three seats at the last set of elections, down from as many as 67 in the previous time – so I think that has been healthy for democracy. And of course it means that people’s votes count, and you therefore have a more vibrant local democracy and we should have that in England too.
With the devolution agenda gathering pace, that’s more responsibilities for local government. Where do you see devolution away from Westminster leading?
JS: We’re still a very centralised country. Particularly England faces that problem, and obviously in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, when [the Assembly] operates, there is much more devolution. And of course London has quite significant powers through the London Assembly, but there’s still a lot of decisions that are made in Whitehall that don’t need to be made in Whitehall and be better made closer to communities.
I know what it’s like as a Scot, with people feeling that Westminster can be quite remote and distant from their lives, but I also lived in Yorkshire and when I was there people felt very similar. I speak to colleagues in the southwest, and if you go to Cornwall [it shows there’s]… different parts of England where there’s definitely a need for further devolution.
I think we should we should basically be of the view that if areas want it they should be able to take it: devolution on demand for different parts of the country. And I don’t think we should be overly fussed about whether it’s perfectly symmetrical and sort of ties up exactly – it should be okay if there are some parts the country that want to have more say and more control over the decisions locally, and others [say] we’re fine for the UK Parliament still to legislate on these other areas.
I think we should be relaxed about having our approach that is very responsive to local needs: more of an organic sort of development, where the needs are. Obviously, we want to see the votes counted in a different way so that it’s fairer and more proportional, but it’s not just about that – it’s about making our Parliament more diverse and our institutions more reflective of society in the 21st century.
What are your thoughts on how we can achieve that in that politics?
JS: I’ve been working on this issue, again, for nearly 20 years. [DH] Written a book on it!.
JS: Yeah I’ve written a book on gender equality in particular, and it was back in 2001 that I first started to be very involved in the Lib Dems: That was the general election that we had just elected 57 MPs and we had only three women elected. And so there was a real kind of soul-searching: why was it so poor?
Part of it is that we need to reach out to underrepresented groups and be really clear about what support is available to stand for election. But it’s a wider cultural change too – it’s about changing where we do our politics, making it more attractive to be involved in and I think in some areas like how public debate is conducted we’ve been going backwards. In terms of speaking out and putting your head above the parapet, the costs of doing that are far higher if you are you are a woman, if you are black, if you are a Muslim, if you are Jewish, sadly, if you have a disability, if you’re LGBT+.
So there’s the whole host of people for whom it’s harder for them to engage – they face a greater penalty, and they already are experiencing all those kinds of similar barriers of a society which is it’s not designed for them. So we need to do this quite holistically, we need to recognize and I think really appreciate the experiences of others in terms of equality and also check our own privilege.
I experience sexism as a woman, but I also experience privilege as a white straight middle-class person and I’ve never been racially abused in the street, I’ve never been stopped and searched by the police, and I’ve never worried about holding my husband’s hand walking through a park. But if I was a black man or if I was a Muslim woman or if I were gay then those are things that I sort of take for granted, that are part of everyday life. Other people don’t have that, so I think we need to listen to others’ experiences so that we can properly help break down the barriers that are that are faced –rather than thinking there’s a target here, and a bit more investment [is needed] there. It’s not about a little diversity project – this is about how we change society
The votes at 16 campaign is one that we’ve been involved with for a long time. Is that another area that you think the Liberal Democrats should be prioritizing?
JS: Absolutely. I’ve been a supporter of votes at 16 since long before I was an MP, and long before as a Liberal Democrat member. In fact I’ve got cutting at home of when I wrote in aged 12 to the ‘Early Times’ which was a young person’s Times newspaper, about lowering the voting age.
It’s been something which I’ve long thought should happen and of course in Scotland we’ve done it for all elections that aren’t the Westminster election or the European elections – so for all the elections that are within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. What’s really good about that is that the sky hasn’t fallen in: actually it works and I’ve really noticed that there’s some people who had previously been sceptical about votes at 16 who the experience of seeing how it works [in, say]…the independence referendum has really made them think, ‘oh actually maybe I was wrong, maybe this should happen’.
DH: Including the Scottish Conservatives.
JS: Some of these issues can filter through UK-wide if there’s enough voices behind it, absolutely. That’s why I think it’s powerful what happened, and it was great on the day of the independence referendum to watch at four o’clock in the afternoon, young people coming out of secondary schools and all walking down the hill to the polling station at the bottom of the road, and going in to vote on mass those who were over the age of 16. It was really inspiring to see.
You mentioned doing politics and in a different way, and we think that it’s not just about election day but what happens in our politics in between voting. That’s where ‘deliberative democracy’ is an interesting area. There’s a lot of chat now about citizens’ assemblies – have you given much thought to this method?
JS: I think it’s really interesting: how to get into quite complex issues and help people understand. I’ve heard from the people who are involved in Ireland – what happened with the vote on abortion and how the citizens’ assembly was really instrumental in taking a group of citizens to hear evidence, to listen, to pick over all the details and come up with some conclusions – those who were themselves very powerful voices within the subsequent campaign. So I think there is merit in it, and similarly I think within local democracy there are interesting ideas about how citizens can be involved in budget processes and so on.
It’s a way of involving people, it’s a way of therefore trying to make sure the decisions that are made genuinely reflect what people think. It’s also a way of helping members of the public to engage with some of the challenges and the trade-offs, because we all want to pay less tax and have much better services and not to have to make difficult decisions, and for everything to work brilliantly – but the reality of politics is that not everybody wants the same thing.
I have people writing to me constantly on opposing sides of the argument, so it does result in some people being disappointed. So finding a way of helping people navigate that…firstly, you might find some different ways through, and secondly [it can] help there to be a wider understanding of some of the balancing of different interest groups. That is the stuff of politics.
My grandmother from Fife used to say everyone wants to go to heaven, no one wants to pay – I think citizens’ assemblies can help resolve that. Do you think also they can be useful tools for elected representatives to gauge of the public mood better? It feels at the moment it’s so difficult to know what the public think on a lot of topics.
JS: I’ve done this in different ways in my 12 years as an MP. I’ve previously had e-consultations where I’ve taken particular topics and shared articles with people both for against on anything from assistive dying to whether parking charges should be introduced – so from local to quite philosophical issues – and then asked people to give me their thoughts, and to vote, but also to give me the reason and their rationale. That’s quite an interesting exercise. Then obviously it’s a lot easier now with the digital tools available to run surveys on local and national issues, to understand what people’s views are. I’ve done that on train services and local town centre developments, so I think I think that is really important to be able to listen and get that feedback from people.
And of course, you’ve got all of your surgeries, and people writing to you and going door-knocking – all of those tried and tested ways of doing it. There is more than one way now. You’ve got to listen to lots of voices, you’ve got to find lots of ways of doing it, and go where people are.
DH: Can I ask you about the House of Lords? Probably that’s all I need to say. Tell me what your opinion is on that…
JS: There’s some amazing people in there, who do a very good job, but it’s undemocratic and therefore we should replace it with an elected House.
That’s been our policy for the entirety of our party’s existence for over 30 plus years, and indeed it’s unfinished business. I think you can go back about a hundred years to when this was expected that it would be completed, and it’s obviously proved very difficult. We tried really hard in the coalition government to make progress on this, and as ever there are vested interests. It can be difficult to make happen but I still think we need to drive through that reform, and have a different role for the House of Lords – a different type of election.
I’m attracted by some of the ideas of single terms, that are for much longer periods of time, so you still get a chamber where there isn’t the kind of short-term eye on the immediate next election, and you can have independence, that I think is harder with a body that is elected every four or five years. And also, you might attract people to it from different roots.
But making progress on it has always been difficult, so although I want 100% elected House of Lords, can I live with something where you’ve got at least 80% and then tried to make some more progress? I would say I would have a degree of pragmatism about my approach [to] get some changes. It’s kind of how our democracy does it.
DH: Just finally Jo, in a few months it will be the tenth anniversary of the 2010 general election. That’s probably the last time that democratic reform issues featured in a big way in a general election campaign. It feels like a similar kind of moment to that again now, with everything we’re seeing.
To what extent can we rely on the Liberal Democrats to be pushing those sorts of issues, in whatever capacity in government it might may find itself serving. On these current opinion polls with the random results of first-past-the-post, you could be leading a government, you could be being participating in a coalition, you could be doing confidence and supply. So what confidence can we have that these issues we need to see seen to will have Liberal Democrat voices pushing for them after the next election?
JS: You can have every confidence the Liberal Democrats are the party of electoral reform and we have been strong supporters and will continue to be.
Let’s be clear, I am aiming to lead that government. There is no limit on my ambition, because these are very volatile times in politics, and who knows what’s going to happen. What I think needs to happen is to have a positive liberal alternative to the nationalism on offer from Boris Johnson and the populism from Jeremy Corbyn, which will actually take our country forward with hope with optimism.
We’re in that situation, and voting system reform is also crucial to it because that two-party system is broken, it’s had its day. It’s an old type of politics and what we need is a modern democracy that is a pluralist politics: one where different parties thriving and cooperating together after elections…is the norm, as happens in you know most democracies around the world.
DH: Jo Swinson, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about these really important issues for the whole UK.