Jo Swinson: You Ask The Questions

The Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire answers your questions, such as 'Do you agree Britain has too many laws?' and 'Do you fancy Lembit Opik?'
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The Independent Online

Nick Clegg claims the central fact of British politics in the past 20 years has been the emergence of a third party. Isn't the central fact instead that the emergence of the Liberal Democrats is splitting the Left vote, and therefore ensuring the Tories have a freer run than they deserve? PETER THOMSON, BY EMAIL

There are many parts of the country where the Liberal Democrats are the main challengers to the Tories, so we are certainly not giving them a free run. A strong third party with progressive ideals and principles challenging the stale red/blue, blue/red establishment consensus is good for British politics and good for Britain.

Why is equality a worthwhile objective for the state? Shouldn't government busy itself with absolute measures of things like life chances and wealth, rather than relative ones? SHAKEEL GUHA, BY EMAIL

I believe that Government has an important role to play in creating an environment where everyone – regardless of class, gender, age or sexuality – has the opportunity to improve their life chances and standard of living. Why should anyone be denied that by where they start in life? A girl born in Drumchapel in Glasgow has just as much right to good health and the opportunities provided by a good education as a Surrey stockbroker's son. Schools, childcare, and health services all close the gap that an unequal society produces, and help everyone reach their potential.

Can you now admit, looking back on how old you were when you entered Parliament, that the House of Commons is no place for people in their mid-20s? Our representatives are meant to have achieved something in life, not be parachuted from the common room at the London School of Economics to Westminster. NAZIR AHMED, BY EMAIL

We need to elect to Parliament high calibre individuals with a range of different backgrounds and experiences. My five years' experience working in small businesses and a multi-national company have helped me as an MP to understand the challenges that businesses face, however the bottom line is that it's up to constituents to judge whether you are good enough to do the job. Come the next election, I hope that people will put a cross next to the name of the person who represents their hopes and ideals and who they think they can do the job well. It doesn't matter if they are 26 or 66.

You made some ridiculous comments a few weeks ago about airbrushing. What exactly do you want? That we ban magazines from airbrushing pictures? How on earth do you expect to achieve that? MARCUS FAWCETT, BY EMAIL

In fact, lots of women have got in touch to say how much they appreciated me raising this issue. Adverts contain completely unattainable images that no-one can live up to in real life and the focus on women's appearance has got out of hand. It is crazy that a picture of a model with perfect skin, perfect hair and a perfect figure is created by airbrushing but then serves as the ideal many women and young girls aim for. We need to help protect children from these pressures and we can make a start by ending airbrushing in adverts aimed at them. For everyone else, all I am asking is that advertisers are honest and upfront about what they do.

Would you agree with the assertion that we have too many laws in this country, and that such a state of affairs is fundamentally illiberal? If you do, how can you defend the notion that the State should intervene to micro-manage the veracity of pictures in magazines? Don't you realise your hypocrisy? LEONID MINSKY, BY EMAIL

There has been a huge erosion of civil liberties under New Labour and any concentration of power can threaten our liberties. I am not proposing any new legislation – what I want to see is a change to the existing Advertising Standards Authority regulations that protect consumers from misleading advertising.

Who is your best friend in the Liberal Democrats? Please don't tell me you're all so involved in a group hug that you don't have personal favourites. CORUS MATTHEWS, BY EMAIL

Among the Liberal Democrat MPs, it's probably Sarah Teather, [the member for Brent East]. We have been friends since 2001, before either of us were elected.

With the likelihood of us getting a Prime Minister and Chancellor that only entered Parliament eight years ago, do you agree that the prevalence of younger MPs with shorter, narrower life-experience contributes to the electorate's increasing isolation from politicians? BEN GODWIN, BY EMAIL

Some MPs have become very isolated from their electorate, but I wouldn't agree that the more recently elected or younger MPs particularly contribute to this problem – often the opposite is true. One of the initiatives I have pursued in Parliament has been to make it easier for the public to see what their MPs do in the House of Commons by removing the ban on Parliamentary filming appearing on YouTube or similar web sites. My regular constituency surgeries are well used by some of my constituents, but such traditional means do not suit others. All of Parliament should be more open to new ways of working.

Are you gutted to lose the baby of the house title [after the election of Tory Chloe Smith in the Norwich North by-election]? And will voting age ever be lowered to 16, to let your student comrades vote? I always thought 16 year olds were a bunch of flatulent idiots incapable of tying their own shoes – but then I'm not a Lib Dem MP. XAVIER MATHUEN, BY EMAIL

I was delighted to pass on the title of baby of the House to Chloe Smith; 29 is too old to be the youngest MP! I believe that in time the voting age will and should be lowered to 16. I disagree with your view of 16 year olds – don't underestimate them!

Charles Kennedy is a great asset. Wouldn't you like him back on the front bench where he belongs? REBECCA LE MONSER, BY EMAIL

Charles is a hugely talented politician and also a rare one, with a great ability to connect with people. I'm sure that he'll be back on the front bench in future.

You are obsessed with Twitter, probably because you think it's cool to be. Isn't Twitter a load of emperor's new clothes tosh? How can it be useful for MPs? Shouldn't you be knocking on doors or something? REBECCA TIMMS, BY EMAIL

At a time when trust in politicians is at an all-time low, any conversation between them and the people they represent is a good thing, whether by letter, phone, in person or online. I knock on lots of doors, but you don't reach everyone that way – Twitter is just one of many ways of keeping in touch. It's also a powerful campaign tool; earlier this year when the Government was trying to keep MPs' expenses secret, thousands of people were mobilised quickly through Twitter and Facebook to urge their MPs to support my motion demanding that Parliament be subject to the same Freedom of Information rules as everyone else.

The Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles reckons your party will do well to hold on to 35 seats. You're clearly in trouble, especially in South-east of England. This will be the first time Liberal Democrats lose seats, won't it? SAM SURBON, BY EMAIL

Well he would say that, wouldn't he? Funny though, that Eric Pickles forgot to mention that as recently as June, the last time the people in his very own constituency had a say in the polling booth they kicked out two Tories and elected two Liberal Democrat County Councillors instead. The Conservatives might spend most of their time complacently discussing who will sit where in Number Ten, but somebody might want to wake them from their born-to-rule attitude and remind them how this works: it's up to the British people to decide who should be in charge – I wouldn't dare second guess them and neither should Mr Pickles.

Do you fancy Lembit Opik? MICHAEL NEILSEN, BY EMAIL

No. Do you?

What are your concerns as an MP, a Liberal Democrat, and a citizen about [Tory donor] Michael Ashcroft? MATTHEW NORRIS, BY EMAIL

As all three, I don't want to live in a country where money can buy you power and influence over the electoral process. If that money has been shielded from our own laws by off-shore bank accounts, then it's even worse.

Perhaps because of misogyny, and perhaps because you've got a lot of old Social Democrat Party brainiacs in your party, you're not thought of as an intellectual force within liberalism. Why don't you tell us who are your biggest influences intellectually. Vince Cable or Marx (Groucho)? THOMAS BRAITHWAITE, BY EMAIL

I believe I can be as thoughtful as many a parliamentarian. Perhaps contemporary politics and the demands of modern media don't lend themselves to presenting intellectual discourse as well as the lens of history does for our predecessors? I'm very engaged in the dialogue around post-consumerist society and quality of life, closely following Professor Richard Layard's writing. We will soon need solutions for sustaining our future economy as convincing as Vince Cable's proposals for rescuing the current one.