Congratulations, Jacinda

It was lovely to hear that the Prime Minister of New Zealand is pregnant. What more extraordinary proof that women can have it all.

Even for political minnows though going back after six weeks as she plans is a tall order.

Hopefully her eminence means that she will have a fantastic support system in place. For those of us small fry activists who have to write our own leaflets, print them, pay for them and deliver them delivering a baby at the same time and fending off the hostility for having “deserted” our post is pretty tough going.

It is amazing how having a baby exerts such strong feelings in others. Lovely ones like protectiveness, joy and empathy but also hideous ones like jealousy, misogyny and even revulsion. It is salutary to note that pregnancy is a time when women are most in danger from domestic violence. When I was a pregnant parliamentary candidate I could scarcely believe how downright rude people could be: “a walking caesarean”, “oh not another one”, “have you got another one in there?” (and that was just the Lib Dems!) This was a decade ago and I really hoped that the climate had changed so it was depressing to see that very recently the Labour MP Luciana Berger was greeted with derision for supposed absences when she was breastfeeding.

Perhaps a good way forward is to have proper protocols for maternity leave for politicians at all levels. According to a recent report a mind blowing 97% of councils have no formal procedures to allow councillors to take maternity leave.

I drafted the following for our own party and would welcome your thoughts.

Candidates and maternity leave

  1. PPC should be automatically entitled to 6 months maternity leave from their role as a candidate. A candidate’s maternity leave should only be compromised in the event of it coinciding with the immediate lead up to a General Election or by-election (ie the short campaign). Local parties should note that all pregnant women have a statutory entitlement to two weeks rest after birth and to ask them to work during that period is illegal.
  2. Approved candidates who no longer wish to stand and those seeking approval should be encouraged to provide cover during a colleague’s maternity leave in order to gain or maintain their own campaigning experience.
  3. No serving PPC should be expected to fight a re-selection in her previous or successor seat (ie a seat that includes most of her previous seat after boundary changes) during her maternity leave unless such maternity leave coincides with the immediate lead up to a General Election or by-election (ie the short campaign).
  4. The party should look at Liberal Democrat best practice in this area in local government, where councillors have successfully taken maternity leave.

 

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East

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9 Comments

  • An interesting and timely article. I think the wording you have stated is progressive and will help to address the discrimination suffered by our women candidates.
    I was shocked to learn that pregnancy is a time when women are most in danger from domestic violence. Is this based on official statistics?

  • Ruth Bright 21st Jan '18 - 8:01pm

    Thanks Ralph, yes the NHS works on the basis that 30% of domestic violence starts during a victim’s pregnancy.

  • Stephen Booth 22nd Jan '18 - 10:32am

    My initial reaction to this posting was that NZ will provide another example of how government and countries can manage very well without prime ministers and leaders for a few weeks or even months in the case of Germany (and didn’t Belgium go over a year without a government?).

    More problematic is allowing PPCs six months maternity leave. Is it fair to let constituency parties go through all the angst of carefully selecting a PPC only to have her announce she will be unavailable for six months? The problem stems from restrictions on questioning candidates about family plans.
    I am all in favour of the best care and support for women during and after pregnancy but there needs to be more recognition by women that childbirth and early years rearing is not just a brief disruption to their lives. If there’s a caring and supportive partner then much public work can continue but let’s not pretend this is just a minor inconvenience.

  • Stephen, I was selected when I was pregnant (too early to show) and although many people in my local party were supportive (to my face at least) when my pregnancy was confirmed many were clearly cheesed off.

    I was so anxious about what people would think that I took 48 HOURS (yes hours) full leave and 6 weeks maternity leave but in contact with my local party and some low-level activity during that time. Cutting it that fine after an emergency section was injurious to my health – and also absurd considering we were two years out from a General Election it was a tall order to win.

    It takes a village to raise a child. Those of us who have completed our families or do not have caring responsibilities can help to cover a PPC’s maternity leave. I have volunteered already any other takers?

  • Stephen Booth 24th Jan '18 - 6:37pm

    Thanks for responding Ruth. My only comment would be that I don’t think it is appropriate for a locum to cover for a PPC. Trying to get elected to parliament is about you, not someone standing in for you.
    It is okay once you are elected and have to take a break for whatever reason though I am of a generation that would not have thought it appropriate for a woman to start a family whilst an MP (the example of Yvette Cooper who I think has had three children since becoming an MP is not something I agree with at all, anymore than people standing who’ve never done anything other than been a SPAD or some other political position).

  • Ruth Bright 24th Jan '18 - 8:42pm

    Stephen I am most grateful to you for your reply and I appreciate the honesty of your position. Funnily enough as someone who went back to work when my first child was 6 weeks old and then “stayed at home” for nearly six years with my second child I found I was subject to much more criticism (and pity even) the second time around.

    We have to find a way forward with this. 80% of women have children. It cannot be right that women between 18 and 45 cannot be MPs and we exclude talented people like Yvette Cooper from political life! The new Education Secretary Damian Hinds got elected and had three children in quick succession. No-one noticed. Quite right too.

    We also tend to forget that being a PPC is an unpaid post and precious candidates succeed. Unless young female PPCs are given the reactionary instruction to find a nice husband to bankroll them (!) the vast majority will have jobs in the real world. A woman who carries out her role as a PPC during her statutory maternity leave may well alienate her employer enough to put her livelihood in danger.

  • OnceALibDem 24th Jan '18 - 8:52pm

    “My only comment would be that I don’t think it is appropriate for a locum to cover for a PPC.”
    I don’t see why it’s not appropriate. People cover for MPs quite often when they are elected. Certainly it has a price as any meeting is an opportunity to make a connection with someone but its not undoable.

    I’ll leave the comment about whether women can have children whilst doing important jobs in the ‘leave it to Beaver trip back to the 50s’ where it belongs. Ruth has consistently raised an important point which in its wider context is part of the issue of the unreasonable demands the Lib Dems in particular make of candidates.

    My concern would be the practical impact of this – as someone who has run successful parliamentary campaigns. And really is the point I made above – your campaign as a PPC is all about building a relationship with enough people to get the votes to win. Any kind of study shows that personal contact is the best way to do that.

    Could I arrange a campaign that allowed a PPC to have 6 months maternity leave that covered (say) months P-10 to P-4 and involved a complete absence from public and organisational appearances and involvement. Absolutely – there are a number of ways you can do that.

    But – and it is a huge but. Would I say that doing that would have no consequence in terms of making the campaign less effective and less likely to win. Yes. Could that effect be reduced, perhaps quite a lot, by being much more focussed in what enagagements the PPC needed to attend – absolutely and that I think should be the focus. As always with such things if a candidate told me they absolutely had to do things a particular way then i’d find a way to do that which gave them the best chance of winning. But you’re still compromising that chance.

    It’s maybe regrettable that that is the case. But politics is done in the world as it is not how people would like it to be.

  • My apologies. I said that “precious” candidates succeed when I meant “precious few”!!

    OnceALibDem – again, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Of course, I take your point that personal contact is a disproportionate part of a Lib Dem campaign. We always put out those pesky blue ink letters claiming our candidates are omnipresent living saints working tirelessly for the community 24/7. What startled me as someone who had children late is how having a family put me in a different place as a community politician. I found it broke the ice with many people, particularly but not only women. I tapped into networks and campaigns I had never noticed before and recruited other young women with family commitments. We began to talk more about birth centres and childcare instead of wheelie bins and dog mess. People liked it.

  • As you say Ruth, “being a PPC is an unpaid post” and most people do it while working full time. While I understand you had a very bad experience as PPC perhaps the situation shouldn’t be seen as either do all the things which are expected of a PPC in a target seat or do nothing. If the candidate lives in the constituency then it would be easier for her to do some activities when she was up to doing them. However, if the PPC lives quite a distance away then having a 6 month break or longer might be the correct thing to be done. Perhaps instead of just providing maternity leave cover there could be a pool of people who would provide full maternity leave cover and/or partial maternity leave cover as agreed with the candidate.

    It is important that Local Parties have realistic expectations for what their PPC’s will do and for them to have an expectation that a candidate after giving birth will require maternity leave and “cover” for that period is an important one.

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