Nick Clegg bemoans the maleness and paleness of the Lib Dems and his sense of shame that our parliamentary party is 88% male seems genuine enough.
What is it about the culture of Lib Dems that has brought about this striking gender imbalance?
My own experience as a councillor and candidate is that being a (young, childless, solvent) woman is a huge advantage. When I was approved and selected in 2001 you could almost smell the desperation of the party to promote women. The glass ceiling – what was that?
But then I did what women do and I had children and I am still reeling at the attitudes I came up against. My agent and many others in my local party were hugely supportive. By the age of six months my second baby had been to two Federal conferences. On both occasions we encountered enormous warmth, were made a huge fuss of and had a whale of a time. But that was amongst our key activists. Alas, the attitude lower down the party food chain made “Mad Men” look like a celebration of feminism.
There are no protocols about maternity leave for a PPC. After my first baby was born I was made to feel so guilty by one branch chair for deserting my post that I did some constituency correspondence only two days after an emergency caesarean (with the baby still desperately ill in the neo-natal unit). Six weeks later, against medical advice, I got back to party business because another branch chair was stirring about “where had she got to?” Eight weeks after giving birth and feeling rotten I dragged myself to a phone canvassing session where a pal of the former PPC told me that I was mad to combine motherhood and politics and complained about how long I’d been away. There was no acknowledgement at all that being a PPC is an unpaid job and women in a paid job (however high powered) can take up to 12 months paid maternity leave.
I was never able to breastfeed at a meeting. I have already recounted on LDV how I attended a Moving Forward meeting and had to use the toilet to breastfeed. It had not augured well when (in an advanced state of pregnancy) I had attended a council group meeting and a Lib Dem had referred to a Tory councillor as a “cow who should be milked”. He went on to speculate with others about whether or not she wore a thong. On another occasion a stalwart of the local party gleefully recounted a discussion about the breast size of two female Lib Dem councillors. Both were intelligent and able politicians but were found wanting for being too petite “up top”.
I am lucky. I have no ambitions in the party so I can speak out but I know many others have had similar experiences but would not say so publicly for fear of being labelled as whingers. I wish all those involved with the leadership programme all the best but no amount of boosting the confidence of female candidates will work unless we first tackle neanderthal man who still disfigures too many of our local parties.
Ruth Bright was Parliamentary Candidate for East Hants at the 2005 General Election.