Jo Swinson interview: 'I'm not a tribal politician – I could work with Labour'

The equalities minister, who opened the Lib Dem conference, talks to Jane Merrick about time off for parents, gender stereotyping and coalition government

Jo Swinson has just been rhapsodising about what it means to be both Scottish and British, how it is possible to feel passionately about both identities, when it occurs to me to ask the question that every boss is banned from asking a pregnant employee: how long are you taking off for maternity leave?

Normally, this would be an outrageous question to ask anyone, let alone a six-months-pregnant minister who is responsible not only for employment relations but also equalities. But we are exactly a year away from the referendum on Scottish independence and Swinson, who is married to fellow Lib Dem MP Duncan Hames, is due to give birth on Christmas Day. As she puts her case for the union being “better together”, it strikes me that the campaign is going to miss out on her voice for a large part of the crucial final year. Even if she takes six months off, there are only three months left for her to wade in. Wouldn’t she want to come back early to help make the case?

“Clearly, there will be a period when I won’t be able to be quite as active on the doorsteps, but, yes, I want to be strongly involved in that campaign because I believe it’s so important for the future of Scotland and, indeed, for the future of the UK.”

The 33-year-old MP for East Dunbartonshire opened the Liberal Democrat conference in her home city of Glasgow yesterday. She is admired by Nick Clegg and is a minister in the Department for Business under Vince Cable, putting her in a strong position. Yet it has not been a happy time recently to be a Lib Dem woman: the allegations of sexual harassment made earlier this year about former chief executive Lord Rennard, although denied, uncovered wider issues with women progressing in the party. Then, earlier this month, Sarah Teather, the former education minister and one of the most prominent women in the party, announced she would stand down at the next election, expressing her disillusionment with Clegg’s leadership.

Swinson describes the Brent Central MP as “my very good friend” but rejects Teather’s claim about people not knowing what the party stands for. “In some ways the fact that you are sometimes confronted with people who have such an opposite view to you on certain issues in many ways reinforces that identity that you have.”

So would she be happy with a coalition with Labour? “I’m perhaps not the most tribal of politicians. Working in a mature and adult way where you recognise what your shared goal is and you manage to work towards that … that is not something which I think would be particularly more difficult with Labour than it is with the Conservatives.”

An inquiry into the Rennard scandal found that Swinson’s informal handling of the sexual harassment allegations was in “good faith” but “insufficient”. When I ask how the party can promote women from the grassroots post-Rennard, Swinson, who is involved in mentoring female activists and candidates, says: “Every cloud has a silver lining. Focusing on what we need to do more to support women in the party is a positive thing.”

However, as Swinson herself points out, only seven of the 57 Lib Dem MPs are women. Out of four Lib Dem cabinet ministers, none is female. Is it time to change that? She says diplomatically: “These are decisions for Nick to make. Our cabinet ministers are all doing excellent jobs.”

Swinson’s key policy as a minister is shared parental leave, where mothers and fathers can share the year off work after having a baby. The policy won’t be implemented until 2015 – “You could argue that’s quite bad timing”, she jokes, patting her bump as we sit in Portcullis House.

“We know that many more dads would like to be involved from early stages, we know that has a positive impact on child development and we know that many mothers find the sharing of childcare responsibilities with work something that is incredibly challenging.” But will fathers take it up? “This is not about government telling parents there is only one way to do it. Having a child is difficult enough already, bringing with it a whole range of wonderful challenges, and we shouldn’t be trying to guilt parents into ‘there is just one way to do it’.”

From April 2014, all workers – not just parents, as is currently the case – will have the right to ask their employers for flexible hours, a recognition that Britain is “no longer in a nine-to-five office environment”.

But what about zero-hours contracts – why is the Government not banning them? While zero-hours abuse is “definitely a problem”, Swinson says the contracts can work for students who don’t want to work when studying for exams and people nearing retirement who want to reduce their hours.

Swinson, as equalities minister, has a concern about gender stereotyping on children’s TV, including channels such as the BBC’s CBeebies and Nick Jr. Last year, she met the BBC’s head of diversity, Amanda Rice, to ask her to show more positive role models. “I don’t think the BBC is actually the worst offender. Some of the commercial channels perhaps don’t always take it seriously in making sure that there are a good range of role models of girls and boys leading programmes.”

There are good examples of stereotype-busting role models – Dora the Explorer, on Nick Jr, a US educational cartoon about an adventurous Latina American girl, and Nina and the Neurons, on CBeebies, in which a woman, Nina (Katrina Bryan), explains science to children.

Stereotyping feeds into choices at school, she says. “We have a massive shortage of engineers and one of the big glaring holes is that we have so few women doing engineering – it’s less than 10 per cent of the workforce. When I speak to schools about the job of being a politician, nine times out of 10 the first child to put their hand up and ask me a question is one of the boys. And that is very ingrained and socialised from an early age.”

She is, of course, about to enter the world of CBeebies herself. She has already swapped notes about going on maternity leave with Yvette Cooper, who revealed earlier this year that after she had a baby she was “cut off” by her own civil servants when a Labour minister. Swinson believes there are signs of improvement in Whitehall, but is adamant that she will not take ministerial red boxes while on maternity leave.

“I am still very committed and enjoy my job and want to come back to continue doing that, but I think having a bit of time to do that early bonding is also really important.

“Duncan and I have obviously discussed wanting to share the parenting as much as possible. Like most new parents, we are both very excited about our new arrival and wanting to be very hands-on from the start.” Expect her this time next year, however, to be back fighting to keep the UK together.

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