Surprisingly, fewer women (18%) than men (21%) support the LibDems, while for both Labour and the Tories the opposite is true.
Perhaps an explanation lies in Ming’s remark in Brighton last week that “we can’t represent a country if we’re not representative of it”.
School-gate mums and working parents are an important demographic, but not one of our parliamentarians is a mother of young children. It’s hard to show we empathise with family issues when women juggling politics and family life are all but invisible in the Lib Dems.
Barring broodiness from our talented young women MPs, the prognosis isn’t good. Campaign for Gender Balance research shows that, faced with an invidious choice between family and politics, many LibDem women are deferring political ambitions rather than risk compromising the quality of their parenting.
Of course this problem isn’t unique to Lib Dems. The Commission for Equality recently reported that women with young children are the most discriminated-against group in the workplace – more so than ethnic minorities or the disabled. But both Labour and the Tories have female parliamentarians successfully balancing family and politics… why don’t we?
One issue is that we have to work much harder than the other two parties, and that mothers caring for young children cannot match the instant availability of those without family responsibilities. Arranging and paying for childcare is part of the problem, but, more fundamentally, families need to spend time together. Renewed focus on breastfeeding and early years bonding has actually increased the pressure on mothers. So wraparound childcare can only be a short-term solution.
However, with a bit of flexibility the family vs. politics dilemma needn’t be as intractable as it seems.
As Liberal Democrat activists we need to move away from knee-jerk presenteeism and instead focus on the quality, as well as the quantity, of time a PPC can contribute. A busy but well-organised PPC may actually be far more effective than one who is permanently available but a poor strategist or media performer. (This is true not only of young mums but also of others who lead busy lives but want to help us advance our LibDem goals).
We must not be judgemental about contributions that don’t fit the typical pattern. For example, a mother with pre-school children may not help much with surveys (which require her to arrange childcare). But she can do many useful things from home while her children nap or play: telephone canvassing, speaking to journalists, writing letters to local papers, planning campaign strategy, drafting campaign literature and so on. If she is a stay-at-home mum she may even be able to get things done in office hours that someone who works full-time cannot. While her activities may be invisible to many LibDem activists, they won’t be to voters.
We need to think carefully about what we expect of PPCs and focus on the bottom line (winning votes) rather than micro-managing how PPCs deliver that bottom line. Inflexibility about how the job can be done disenfranchises young mums from political participation. It also prevents them being represented by one of their own – something which is unacceptable for ethnic minorities and the disabled and should be for women too.
As Ming said, we have much to gain from ensuring LibDem representation reflects all parts of the community we serve. Young mums are well networked into their communities and at the coal face of using public services such as the NHS and education, giving them a hands-on understanding of issues that matter to many voters.
In Brighton last week we voted to extend flexible working rights. Let’s make sure we practise the excellent family-friendly policies we preach.
Dinti Batstone is a Lib Dem member in Hammersmith & Fulham