Opinion: Job share MPs – an idea whose time has come

As regular LDV readers may know, I’ve long advocated the idea of allowing candidates to put themselves forward for election on a job-share basis (letting constituents decide whether they want to elect job-share MPs). Today a Bill making this possible will be presented to the House of Commons.

The Representation of the People (Members’ Job Share) Bill will be introduced as a Private Member’s Bill by Labour MP John McDonnell. It will be interesting to see how much cross-party support the Bill gets. Individual Lib Dems have certainly been sympathetic to its aims. Mark Williams MP tabled an Early Day Motion on job-shares in the last session of Parliament (gaining signatures from Labour, Conservative, Green and Plaid Cymru MPs), while Ros Scott and Kate Parminter have championed the cause from the House of Lords. In 2010 I debated MP job-shares on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, while Nick Clegg voiced his support on Mumsnet.

Explanatory Notes to the Bill set out the detail, but here’s a reminder of the rationale.

A growing body of evidence shows that job-sharing can stem the ‘female brain drain’ by enabling more women to progress into senior roles while combining work with family. A recent report  included the striking finding that 80% of highly qualified professional women want to work part-time. Last year Lord Davies’ “Women on Boards” review found mid-career work-life balance issues to be a key driver of female under-representation at Board level, while Justice Secretary Ken Clarke advocated high quality part-time career paths to boost numbers of senior women judges.

Exactly the same logic applies in politics. Research I undertook for the party four years ago found that many experienced prospective women candidates in their 30s and 40s rule themselves out of standing for Parliament because they see it as incompatible with family life. We’re really not that bad at getting women in their 20s and 50s into Parliament; the problem is the period in between (which, incidentally, is precisely when most men are first elected).

Highly qualified professional women (and growing numbers of men) in their 30s and 40s, are rejecting all-or-nothing models of work and instead gravitating towards careers which offer high quality flexible part-time work. This is where job-sharing comes in: giving job-sharers the reduced hours they want whilst offering organisations the responsiveness, full-time cover and commitment needed for senior level roles.

Just last week, Liberal Democrats scored a big win with policies for shared parental leave. We recognise dual career families as the norm, and believe it should be up to parents, not the state, to decide how mothers and fathers juggle work with family. Challenging outmoded, inflexible and male-centric workplace cultures is a crucial part of delivering our party’s vision of gender equality.

Westminster is no different. To attract and retain more women in politics we need to make politics fit women’s lives, not vice-versa.. The beauty of job-sharing is that it does this in a way that doesn’t compromise on constituents’ need for full-time representation. And while job-shares may disproportionately be taken up by those with caring responsibilities, they will of course be open to any candidates who can persuade local parties and constituents to vote them in on that basis. What could be more liberal and democratic than that?  Anyone wishing to support the campaign for job-share MPs can sign this petition.  

* Dinti Batstone is a member of WLD and Acting Co-Chair of Campaign for Gender Balance.

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16 Comments

  • Peter Watson 19th Nov '12 - 11:33pm

    There seem to be all sorts of questions that arise from the idea of job-share MPs.
    What happens if they disagree about how to vote on a particular issue? If the job-share is 60:40 does the 60% sharer always decide which way to vote? If one rebels can the whip be withdrawn from half an MP? What if one decides to cross the floor and join another party? Or dies?
    Does having two MPs on a single salary introduce a bias towards a particular type of person becoming an MP, e.g. those with sufficient wealth or income from elsewhere? Would this then give an advantage to a party containing more of that type of person, e.g. they could effectively operate as 1.5-2 full-time equivalent MPs, perhaps working in shifts to fillibuster.
    I’m sure that with more than a few minutes’ thought there are plenty of other issues.
    I’m all for flexible working for men and women, but in a parliamentary system where MPs are individuals who represent their constituents, not employees of a party machine, I am unconvinced that job-sharing is suitable for MPs.

  • Peter Watson 20th Nov '12 - 12:02am

    As an aside, I do wonder if we really want a system that makes it easier for anyone – male or female – to be MPs in their 30s. We seem to have a generation of high-ranking politicians who have little experience outside the “Westminster bubble” unless they have dipped their toes into the Brussels bubble, and who seem more concerned about winning the game than serving the country.

  • Dinti Batstone 20th Nov '12 - 10:28am

    Thanks for your questions Peter.

    I’ve writen about job-sharing on LDV before, if you search under my name you’ll find articles which give much more background and information about how parliamentary job-sharing could work in practice. You can also find a link (http://genderbalance.org.uk/en/article/2011/529957/family-friendly-working-will-mps-practice-what-they-preach-fringe-event-at-autumn-conference) to videos of a job-sharing fringe event I chaired at 2011 Autumn Conference (Lynne Featherstone was one of the speakers). Between them the articles and the video answer the questions you raise (as well as many others).

    The experience of introducing job-shares at senior level in business, the professions and the civil service is that people always say “this job can’t be doe as a job-share”… until someone actually does it and proves them wrong, There’ve been successful precedents for job-share medics, lawyers, chief executives, trade unionists and senior civil servants e.g. ambassadors.

    As to your final point, surely our parliament needs to be representative of a range of interests, background and experience? If it’s only populated with older people there will surely be a bias towards policies and resource allocation favouring old over young in the same way that evidence shows that Parliaments with low proportions of women give less attention to issues that matter most to women. In any case youth is certainly no bar to effectiveness: just look at Jo Swinson, one of the most talented people in our party and an MP since the age of 25.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 20th Nov '12 - 12:07pm

    Would the job sharers be expected to house share too; or are we potentially looking at two sets of housing, etc, claims?

  • It’s an obvious idea, but it isn’t just of benefit to women ‘would be’ candidates. If every seat was occupied by a man and a woman on a 50% basis that would resolve the gender balance issue at a stroke, they could decide between them how they would split the time in Westminster, and there would be more people in the chamber and consequently better debates. They would be a team, with a shared office in the constituency and a shared office in Parliament. At the General Election the voter would be voting for a team of two.
    With better attendance in the Commons better progress could be made with legislation, especially if some of the pedantic procedures could be swept away. In practise the MPs would then have time on the ground to liaise with local business and go on fact-finding trips, knowing that duties at home were being covered by the partner.
    Clearly this would cost more as there would be more travelling and other costs, and the salary would need to be more than 50%, as obviously the incumbent would not do just 2.5 days per week(well not a LibDem anyway)

  • Congrats on putting Job Shares into to practice, I see yourself and Julie Smith will job share the role of Federal Policy Committee rep on the Conference Committee.

  • Peter Watson 20th Nov '12 - 1:30pm

    I can’t help but feel that pitching job-sharing as a means to ensure gender balance is counter-productive. The (obviously unintended) impression that can come across is that it takes two women to do the job of one man. I believe that there is a much more positive message to be made about the many benefits of flexible working for employers and employees of both sexes.

    I have not had time to watch all of the videos to which you link, but there seems to be an acknowledgement that working more than half-a-job is a temptation that must be resisted by the individual to maintain their own work-life balance. I would suggest that at certain times, elections for example, ambitious job-sharing politicians would happily be exploiting their numerical advantage by working simultaneously. This might be a good thing, or it might be an unfair advantage for individuals and parties that can afford to work in this way.

    I think that job-sharing is a great thing in principle, whether that is because an employer can benefit from complimentary skills in the same role, or because part-time work allows an employee more time with family or with another part-time job, though many of our MPs already seem to find enough time in their busy days to earn income from other sources. I am still unconvinced though that job-sharing is suitable for an MP, and would much prefer to see details about how it could be made to work fairly in our parliamentary system. The intention is good: it would allow mothers to balance work and family (though perhaps we should challenge the assumption that this is only needed for mothers), but the law of unintended consequences means that the principle of job-sharing for MPs raises a lot of issues that have nothing to do with home-work balance. We could simply find ourselves with a parliament full of full-time but notionally job-sharing male MPs, a stepping-stone between special advisor and cabinet post.

    With regards to the age of MPs, I’m sure that there are plenty of good young MPs with valuable experience outside politics (I’m always impressed by Labour’s Chuka Umunna) and some lousy older ones, it’s just that over recent years I’ve been depressed to see the apparent rise of a younger professional political class from a narrowing range of backgrounds for whom politics seems to be little more than the extension of a posh school or university debating society. Their skills are great for impressing selection committees and point-scoring on Question Time, but are they the best people to manage departments or the economy. I don’t believe many of these politicians are representative of their age group in the population just because they are young. Old people are pandered to by our government because they vote, not because our MPs are old. Any individual MP must represent all of the people in their constituency with different opinions, nationalities, abilities, wealth, beliefs, genders, sexual orientation, social class, etc.. It might be best to achieve this by ensuring that each MP is exposed to and advised by people from these backgrounds rather than by forcing parliament to have the same diverse composition.

  • I absolutely agree. The job share between Harriet Ainscough and Sam Fisk as Liberal Youth International Officer(s)confirmed this for me, and your recent appointment does likewise. If people don’t like the idea, they can always not vote for the MPs… It will help different people of all genders.

  • Peter Watson 20th Nov '12 - 3:42pm

    @peter “they could decide between them how they would split the time in Westminster, and there would be more people in the chamber and consequently better debates. They would be a team”
    This might well be a good thing in itself and a better way to run parliament, but it sounds like another unintended consequence of a measure to promote equal opportunities for women in parliament. Rather than allowing two (or three or four … ) people to divide the time to carry out the same job, it is dividing the the job to match people’s skills. How can a single MP hope to compete with two (or three or four …) who might between them have more time and specialist skills to research, debate, appear on television, vote, cover sickness, etc. In an arms race between political parties we could simply end up with a lot more people called MPs but no real changes to the composition of that group. And pity the poor whips trying to keep that lot in line!

    And do we need new legislation to allow all of those people to be MPs? Surely under the current system an MP could simply sacrifice more of their salary and allowances in order to employ additional people to whom work is delegated.

  • Katy Gordon 20th Nov '12 - 6:54pm

    I have had many years’ experience managing job sharers in public service. This has allowed large numbers of women (I am not sure I’ve ever met a male job sharer) to combine family / caring responsibilities with contining to contribute to society, repay their employer’s commitment to flexible working and earn enough to support the family income (whether a single parent or not). I have also, as a trade union steward previously, campaigned successfully to introduce a formal flexitime system to a public sector, public facing service. All the arguments about it not being appropriate in this instance or citing of reasons why it couldn’t work melted away to nothing when the details were hammered out and the system introduced. I have not doubt that this too helped many women to stay in the workplace.

    I have also heard a number of senior managers state that, while job share is all very well for most levels, it wouldn’t work at senior level. This argument is being repeated in the case of MPs, with as little justification. Frankly, where there is a will there is a way. Given that all are agreed that the gender balance of the House of Commons is appalling and likely to remain so for many years to come unless more drastic measures are tried, we need to focus on measures that are proven to make a difference. Now while affordable childcare and women only quotas are more difficult to achieve (and in the latter case more contentious), job sharing is a very simple change to make that has been shown to make a difference in achieving significant progress towards a better gender balance in other areas of working life.

    Many of the objections focus on specific detailed questions, to which the answer is clearly to say: help us hammer out the solutions to these objections so we can produce a workable proposal. The devil is clearly in the detail but this is not a reason to use specific as yet unanswered questions to derail the principle. I would suggest that it is worth taking the time to produce a fully worked through, costed proposal, covering all the relevant details, and then use this as the basis for debate and promotion of job sharing.

    The status quo in politics is not an option. We need our parliaments to reflect the make up of the population and it is a scandal that so little has been done to rectify the issue. Different political parties have tried different approaches, but what has parliament itself done really to improve the frankly Dickensian working practices of Westminster in particular?

    I would like to see job-sharing MPs. When Nick Clegg introduced the proposals last week on extending flexible working to everyone, I don’t remember him excluding MPs. This is an idea whose time has come and it would be one part of the process of dragging Westminter practices into the 21st centuary and to modern HR good practice!

  • Peter Watson 20th Nov '12 - 7:52pm

    @Katy Gordon
    “help us hammer out the solutions to these objections so we can produce a workable proposal”
    Some detailed responses to the reservations I came up with after a moment’s thought would be a good start ;-)
    It may be a good idea, it may not. Listening to Meg Hillier earlier I was left none the wiser about how job sharing would be made to work for MPs, and she appeared to suggest that the voting issue would be addressed by following the whips which would surely make much of the job of an MP pretty redundant whether shared or not. Equally, David Amess seemed incapable of making a coherent argument against the proposals! The article above contains a link to a bill calling for constituency representation by two (why not more?) people. Surely the first step is to explain how and why such a change would improve female representation in the Commons, identify the problems and side-effects that arise and explain how they would be addressed, and then introduce the bill with confidence that it is a good idea. The approach being taken seems to put the cart before the horse.
    In the meantime, are there less radical changes to working practices that would make the job of an MP more family friendly? Could more of the role be delegated to appointed staff? Could working hours be more regulated? Would the use of technology to support watching debates (Parliament TV) and voting in absentia mean MPs did not have to hang around Westminster waiting for the division bell to call them back to an almost empty debating chamber? Would a loudspeaker that emitted silly noises mean that most MPs could stay home during PMQs?

  • John McDonnell MP 21st Nov '12 - 7:11pm

    Excellent article Dinti. You will see that we achieved genuine cross party support for the 11 MPs we needed to sponsor the Ten Minute Rule Bill. The Bill was not opposed on a vote and went through although there was a Tory backwoodsman speaking against it. Mind you I think he is still finding it difficult to come to terms with women having the vote and the end of the divine right of Kings. The next stage will be to use every Parliamentary mechanism we can to keep the issue alive in Parliament whilst we lobby and campaign outside. It may also be that we pursue a legal action on the basis of the positive EHRC legal advice.

  • There seems to be an un-stated assumption here that the job sharer’s are a team ie. get to choose each other and are politically joined at the hip, I believe this to be an invalid assumption. It is obvious that as in business it is the employer ie. the electorate, who get to choose the job sharers hence the sharers need to stand as individual candidates and whoever comes first and second gets the job!

  • Peter Watson 22nd Nov '12 - 10:58am

    @Roland “the sharers need to stand as individual candidates and whoever comes first and second gets the job!”
    Like a cross between coalition government and localism – surely the ultimate Lib Dem fantasy :-)

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