They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So when I heard Caroline Lucas trumpet MP job-shares on Friday morning, part of me was delighted. But the suggestion that political job-shares are a radical new idea from the Greens had me spluttering into my Lady Grey.
For the record, here’s a brief history of Liberal Democrats advocating MP job-shares:
…and yours truly in a speech to party Conference 2009, on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in February, on Lib Dem Voice in March, in Liberator in June, and at various speaking events around Westminster over the past year.
Perhaps the timing of Ms Lucas’ public conversion to the cause is propitious, as Liberal Democrats will be debating political job-shares in Liverpool next week.
So much for the history. What about the substance?
First, a premise: I come at job-shares from the perspective of attracting more women into politics. However, the beauty of job-shares is that, unlike All-Women-Shortlists, they are equally open to men.
So why would job-shares attract more women into politics?
To answer this we need to understand the drivers of female under-representation. It may surprise some to hear that Liberal Democrats actually do comparatively well at electing women in their 20s and 50s as MPs. The problem is the gap in between. Too many experienced women candidates throw in the towel at precisely the time male contemporaries are winning elections.
For career women of my generation, it’s an all-too familiar story. The twenty-something dream of “having it all” becomes the thirty/ forty-something nightmare of “doing it all”. Something has to give.
In most families, women (whether working or not) are still the primary child-carers. The Centre for Policy Studies found last year that while a majority of mothers with young children want to work, only 12% want to do so full-time. The latest dispatch from the working vs stay at home mum frontline appears to endorse that compromise: “part-time work, up to 30 hours a week, provides more desirable outcomes than full-time employment”.
Enlightened employers who value their female talent understand this dilemma. They have embraced flexible working legislation and empowered women to find their own solutions to the work/ life juggle. For many women this means working part time while children are young, returning to full-time work as their children get older. I’m not saying this is how it should be; simply that this is how many women want it to be.
The problem in politics is that the job of MP as currently framed doesn’t fit the post-modern woman’s life. Do we really want 88% of mothers to rule themselves out of being an MP because no part-time working model is available? Even the 12% who want to work full-time may find the 24/ 7 culture and requirement to live in two places impossible to reconcile with the quality of family life they want for their children (viz. Labour’s Ruth Kelly, Kitty Ussher and Julia Drown, all of whom cited incompatibility of politics with family life as their reason for standing down).
MPs are guilty of breathtaking double standards in mandating flexible working for other people’s workplaces, while failing to practice what they preach at Westminster. Their chorus of “it couldn’t possibly work here” is precisely the same chorus we heard in many other workplaces until legislation forced a change.
Certainly, the notion of a part-time MP is unlikely to be popular in the current political climate. And that’s exactly why job-shares are such a compelling solution. Job-shares reconcile part-time work with the need for full time cover. What’s more they have a track record of success at the highest levels in business, the professions and the civil service. Are we really saying that the job of a backbench MP is more complex than that of an Ambassador or CEO?
So how would it actually work? Job-share candidates would go into the election on a job-share ticket. If elected, the job-share pair could each work 3 days a week with a half-day overlap. Committee memberships, portfolios and casework would be wholly allocated to one or other job-sharer and voting rights in the chamber would be alternated according to strict criteria determined at the time of setting up the job-share. Salaries and expenses allowances would be halved so the taxpayer wouldn’t pay a penny more. Indeed, spending just 1-2 nights a week away from home would mean that a hotel room could replace the second home, so expenses would likely fall.
What better way to re-connect politicians to real life than by allowing them to spend half their working week away from the political bubble? Constituents would benefit from the fact that job-shares are typically 30% more productive than an individual doing the same job alone, while Westminster would benefit from an injection of people with experience beyond politics and a more collaborative working style.
To any Liberal Democrats feeling queasy about the idea of job-shares, let me quote an impeccable authority. Railing against the exclusion of women from Parliament, John Stuart Mill remarked: “In all things of any difficulty and importance, those who can do them well are fewer than the need, even with the most unrestricted latitude of choice; and any limitation of the field of selection deprives society of some chances of being served by the competent, without ever saving it from the incompetent” (The Subjection of Women, 1869)
Job-shares would open up the possibility of becoming an MP to countless more women and men. Can we really afford to waste that talent…?
Dinti Batstone is Vice-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance, and a former councillor and European Parliament candidate in London