Opinion: a brief history of MP job-shares… and why we need them

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:

Nick Clegg on Mumsnet in January

Baronesses Ros Scott and Kate Parminter in a Lords debate on 21 July

…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

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27 Comments

  • Richard Hill 12th Sep '10 - 6:59pm

    Seems totally insane to me. Yes one person could vote for 3.5 days a week, that might work but I think there might be problem when people disagree. Work load, split it down the middle. When do you say you have enough. If you have enough work for 3.5 days who do you turn down or do you take on more work. I would expect it to quickly build up to a full weeks work. Then, I am only geting paid for half a week but I do a full weeks work. I want a pay rise. I get the impression most people think there are to many MPs already. They would soon be hated even more.

  • Ruth Bright 12th Sep '10 - 7:09pm

    I understood that the Greens sometimes jobshare roles within their party – if that’s the case they are actually doing something about this not just talking about it! Their leadership was jobshared for ages.

  • The Greens gave up job sharing their leadership role, so I think Caroline is being a bit hypocritical.

    But yes, I don’t see why we should not have job share MPs. In extremis they should both be able to vote – with half a vote each if they do. This could matter on votes of conscience, and there may be the odd occasion when both wanted to be on the record as having voted. Good luck Dinti – but I bet it doesn’t happen this decade.

    Tim

  • Dinti Batstone 12th Sep '10 - 7:29pm

    Richard, I’m not advocating compulsory job shares for all MPs, merely for candidates who want to do a job share to be allowed to present themselves to the electorate on a job share ticket. If the electorate doesn’t want it it won’t vote for it.

  • simplest solution is to have multi-member constituencies, that way more than one MP will represent an area so if one MP goes of sick, on maternity, needs time, on compassionate leave etc, there will be one or more MPs still covering that constituency.

  • Richard Hill 12th Sep '10 - 7:40pm

    I think it would be better to halve the number of constituencies and have one male and one female candidate, job sorted. That has a lot of problems as well, but people don’t seem to bothered about reality.

  • Colin Green 12th Sep '10 - 7:44pm

    An MP’s salary would divide by two nicely and their work load would keep 2 people busy. I wonder how accountability and the right to vote would be divided, though. Should the constitutional issues be resolved nicely, I have no objection, other than to suggest that both might end up doing the job full time.

  • Martin Land 12th Sep '10 - 8:01pm

    One of the great things about being a Lib Dem is that from time to time you get to read something as nonsensical as this. Thanks for giving me a big laugh after a difficult week!

  • Richard Hill 12th Sep '10 - 8:10pm

    What happens if they become prime minister. One wants war and the other dosen,t, will we just fight 3.5 days a week.

  • Its an interesting proposal, but I have two main questions. Firstly, how do you see it working regarding voting on matters of conscience and so on, or on important debates where everyone wants to have their say? Secondly, what if one of them feels the need to cross the floor or stand down for whatever reason? Must the other go with them, fight for re-election, or does only that half of the ticket need replacing?

  • What happens if one resigns? If there is a by election and the other party wins how does that work? (not against idea, not sure about practicalities)

  • Alex Beidas 12th Sep '10 - 9:23pm

    I think it is an excellent idea. It is the only proposed solution I have come across to get more people in that bracket into politics that could really work. I would be interested to hear what solution those that dismiss it outright have instead.

  • I’m with Lloyd on this. The mental shift it would take to get the public to imagine voting for two candidates is much bigger than the mind-shift needed to get STV. Why don’t we just stick with Plan A, multi-member constituencies. and STV? We could revert to part-time work for all MP’s, with all of them then having the option to have jobs in the real world.

  • Dinti Batstone 12th Sep '10 - 10:56pm

    Many of these objections have already been raised – and overcome – in the context of business and professional job shares. I agree that issues more specific to politics need further consideration, which is why my amendment to the Diversity motion calls for a review of the viability of job-shares and flexible working in politics. Proper scrutiny is surely a better approach than outright dismissal…

  • NoOffenceAlan 12th Sep '10 - 11:16pm

    On the back of the expenses scandal this is exactly the wrong time, from a public relations point of view, for politicians to complain about their working arrangements.
    And will these job-share candidates ensure that they never leaflet, canvass or hold press conferences at the same time as the other one?

  • Dominic Curran 13th Sep '10 - 9:22am

    This is one of the daftest ideas i have yet heard. I laughed when i heard Caropine Lucas say it and thought to myself ‘oh yes, that’s why i didn’t join the greens – they’re bonkers’. Reading this has thus made my Monday morning even more blue.

    Honestly, people come up with this drivel and then wonder why we spend 80 years in opposition.

  • Thank God I didn’t join the Greens.

  • Dominic Curran 13th Sep '10 - 2:32pm

    @ Jo Christie-Smith

    You say that you’re tired of people who offer no constructive alternative. I’m not entirely sure why’s it’s up to me to offer a way of getting more women engaged with politics if i happen to think that a particular idea is absurd. However, to give you an explanation of why i think Dinti’s idea is daft, here’s why: we elect a representative to parliament for our area. That is a fundamental tenet of our democracy. We don’t actually vote for a party label (even if some in practice do), we vote for a person. We don’t vote for two people. On a given vote, you have a pretty good idea of how your MP will vote. What’s to stop two job-share MPs voting a different way on the same issue? What if they were on duty at different stages of the same bill? Would it be acceptable, ceterus paribus, for them to vote different ways, depending on whose conscience or opinion was being called on to vote on a particular day? If they stood on the same ticket for election and you liked one but thought the other one was awful, how could you ensure your vote went to the one you liked? What if one MP was really anti-abortion and one wasn’t? Would you have to hope that the one that you agreed with most was on duty for a given bill? And imagine what a wonderful excuse each would have for why their party (presumably they’d be from the same party?) passed a particularly unpopular bill (‘oh, i wouldn’t have voted for it had i been in that day’) – because one person isn’t solely responsible for what is done in your name, there is less accountability. How are those for reasons why it’s daft?

    If you want more women in politics, the women who would like to stand but are held back because they have family commitments should talk to their partners/husbands about whose career is more important and how childcare will be shared. That is properly an issue for each household to sort out – and if the husband/male partner is intransigent on the matter, then that’s the family’s problem, not a problem of lack of job-sharing.

  • Dominic Curran 13th Sep '10 - 2:35pm

    Oh, and by the way, being away from one’s family is sadly a big feature of politics, as there are plenty of evening and weekend campaigning events and meetings. If you want to be involved in politics, and don’t live in a safe seat where no one will mind if you’re not about and will get re-elected no matter what you do (cf. Glenda Jackson and Michael Portillo), then, male or female, you will sacrifice your family life to a certain extent. It’s rubbish, but then what else can one do? I wish women wouldn’t assume that men/husbands love being away from their wife and kids for four nights a week half the year.

  • It is a thought-provoking idea but the more I thought about it the more I concluded it was the wrong answer to the problem.

    It might work in a closed-list PR system where MPs dont have such a clear relationship with their electorate but as far as I can see it cant be fitted on to a single member constituency system (or even STV).

    MPs are not senior business executives: MPs are accountable at regular intervals to the electorate which judges them on a wide range of issues (that they, the electorate, decide upon). Business executives are not: their only objective is to deliver shareholder value. So the technical solutions to job share in the work place wont apply.

    MPs are not delegates, they are representatives. So they vote according to their conscience and beliefs on the issues before them. How credible would a system be if one half of the MP voted one way on a Bill on a Monday and the other half of the MP voted the other way on the same Bill on a Thursday? How would voters be able to judge their performance on that issue at the ballot box?

    You could design the system so that the MPs vote the same way on everything but that would create all sorts of perverse incentives.

    What if the two halves found that they disagreed profoundly on an issue of conscience? So much so that one of them decided they could not run on the same ticket at the next election? Where would that leave the other half? Bounced off the party ticket and forced to run as an independent?

    And, in the democratic age, systems of government have to have popular legitimacy, not be devised in some sort of constitutional laboratory (ask anyone trying to convince voters that the EU is a good thing). I just cant see voters buying this no matter how good it sounds in theory.

    Another way of looking at the problem would be to radically redesign the job of an MP. Because a large part of the problem (and not just for women) is that the job is actually two full time jobs (Westminster and the constituency). For ministers it is effectively three jobs. For anyone with a party management job (such as Nick) that becomes four jobs.

    So the first thing to do might be to look at reducing the time that MPs spend in Westminster. Any national parliament that can give resources to debating pigeon control in Worcester town centre (as the House of Commons did earlier this year) might be extremely busy but is it really focused on what is important? If Parliament sat for three days a week between 9.30 and 5.30 then it would have to focus on what was important. MPs could then be paid to work for two days in the constituency. It also might result in fewer laws and hence less government: that would be both popular AND a good thing.

    The second major change might be to detatch the legislature from the executive. This would have lots of other benefits around reducing the power of the whip and making parliament more accountable. But it would also mean that each MP could focus on doing one job. It would also mean that there would be more of them to do the jobs that needed doing (since you would no longer have 200 tied up on front bench roles) so they could work more efficiently within the 3 days they were in Westminster.

    Of course there is a simpler solution which if implemented would probably bring all sorts of benefits in its wake in terms of changing the way politics is done. But despite the fact that only two things (giving women the vote and all women short lists) have ever had a real impact on the representation of women in parliament and despite our party having the unhappy distinction of having opposed both at the time they were proposed, I cant see the Lib Dems catching up on all women short lists for some time yet…

  • Is there anything we won’t consider opening up for coalition?

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Sep '10 - 9:11pm

    I think this sort of proposal probably misses something quite central to the nature of politics. Being an MP isn’t really a “job”. MPs aren’t busy because there’s so much for them to do – the amount of “work” they could taken on is no doubt infinite (so jobsharing makes no difference, because infinity divided by two is infinity), while the amount of work they have to do is actually zero, because there is no contract that specifies their duties (so again jobsharing makes no difference because zero divided by two is zero).

    The reason that MPs work such incredibly long hours is that becoming an MP is a ferociously competitive business, in which the chief requisite for winning is lots and lots of publicity: being seen to be working, turning up at constituency functions, speaking in parliament, getting your face on the TV and your voice on the local radio. So what would the effect of a jobshare MP be? Well, you would have two people, so you could do twice as much work, and thereby increase your competitive advantage perhaps – and you’d have to, to have any chance of offsetting the negative effects of being a slightly indistinct team rather than a clear individual.

    In fact, plenty of Councillors effectively work as jobshares already – what else do you call it when you have two or three Councillors, usually from the same party, representing the same ward? I’m not sure they work any less hard than their single-seat equivalents; though it would be interesting to know whether there are significantly more women representing mult-seat wards than single-seats.

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