Jo Swinson with Nick Clegg on the last day of the campaign. Photo: Getty
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Ex-Lib Dem minister Jo Swinson: “When we went into coalition, I knew it might be impossible to win my seat”

The coalition minister who lost her Scottish seat at the election reflects on her party’s defeat.

Jo Swinson looks relaxed. When I meet her at a brasserie that recently opened under the arches in Vauxhall, she is chatting merrily to its owner, a friend of hers.

It is three weeks after she lost her seat in Scotland to the SNP. Swinson had represented East Dunbartonshire for the Lib Dems since 2005. She was a key member of the Lib Dems in government, promoted by Nick Clegg further than the other, very few, female Lib Dem MPs, to the position of Business and Women and Equalities Minister.

She was often touted as a future Secretary of State for Scotland, and even as a successor to Clegg. A future that has slipped through her fingers – at least momentarily. But she is straightforward about her desire to return to politics.

“I loved the job of being an MP for East Dunbartonshire, and so I can certainly envisage circumstances where I stand again,” she says. “But I'm not going to make that decision at this point.”

For the moment, she is enjoying being reunited with her 17-month-old son, Andrew, and her husband Duncan Hames (a former Lib Dem MP who also lost his seat in the general election).

“Part of me just wanted him to remember who I am!” she says of her son, recalling the final three weeks of her campaign when he was staying down in Hames’ constituency of Chippenham. Half way through the short campaign, Swinson handed Andrew over to Hames when she was down doing Question Time.

Having reunited in London the day after the election, she recalls them taking their son to play in the park while both “feeling zombified having not really slept properly”.

Swinson seems less exhausted now, however, and is happy to reflect on the Lib Dems’ catastrophic defeat. Perhaps this is easier for her, as she actually increased the number of votes she received (from 18,551 in 2010 to 19,926 in 2015, and only just lost by a little over 2,000 votes).

“The only silver lining is that I got a good result and it didn't feel personal, because you were losing on a night when most Liberal Democrat MPs are losing their seats, and indeed most Scottish MPs,” she says.

Yet she does point out that her party’s role as coalition partner with the Tories put her in a precarious position – although she still maintains going into government was the “right thing to do”.

“I always knew it was going to be difficult fighting a seat in Scotland having been in coalition with the Conservatives,” she admits. “And I recognised when we went into coalition it might make it impossible to win my seat.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war