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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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