Opinion: None shall be enslaved by….maternity?

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.

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29 Comments

  • Ruth – thank you for your very honest post. That is really shocking (but sadly not too surprising). I am hopeful that attitudes must, can and will change. Not least because I believe our party demands more of our candidates (female and male) than any one person can possibly deliver. If we want to attract and keep excellent people, we need to appreciate the limits on their time, energy and financial resources. If we dont’ do this, we miss the point that many of the best candidates are likely to be successful or commited in other areas of their life. If politics becomes completely overwhelming and soul-destroying we will lose otherwise good people. There are proposals for a form of contract between candidates and their local party. This will hopefully go some way to address some of the problems you encountered. As for sexist and inappropriate behaviour, there is a contract which candidates sign about not bringing the party into disrepute etc – it seems to me any such behaviour from any one involved in the Liberal Democrats is completely unacceptable. Why should candidates be held to a high standard only for their efforts to be undermined by thoughtless ignorant bigots?

  • Daniel Henry 12th Oct '11 - 4:27pm

    Good post.
    If the party really wants to tackle this issue then it needs to be aware of information like this.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Oct '11 - 4:32pm

    One of the problems with our party is that it does seem to expect PPCs to take on an enormous workload. This is a problem not just for mothers with children, but for anyone who needs to earn a living and has limited time after that. I spent 12 years as a councillor, seriously damaging my professional career by putting my energies into that, and even then I felt I could only do semi justice to both roles because I didn’t have children. I appreciate that our party has to rely on volunteers, but it seems to me this idea that a PPC must also take on massive amounts of general campaigning and organising work effectively shuts the role of to many people. Not just women, I would say it contributes much to the way our party’s MPs are not representative of the population in terms of social class, not that anyone much seems bothered by this – it sees to be that as long as we have some wealthy women and wealthy non-white MPs, we will be considered fine and balanced.

  • Liberal Neil 12th Oct '11 - 4:40pm

    Ruth – thanks for posting this. I think it ties in with one of the real reasons we have so few women MPs – that the expectations on a Lib Dem PPC in a target seat actually make it impossible for most normal people to take on the role, and even more so for women.

    I’m sure this is largely because we have such limited resources and no safe seats, but if the party is genuinly serious about the lack of diversity amongst MPs we have to find a way round it, otherwise no amount of training of potential candidates will make much difference. This needs to cover maternity/paternity issues and others such as busy work periods, ill health etc.

    I know we discussed the Moving Forward training incident previously, and I think I apologised for the fact that you had been put in that situation. For the record I personally have no problem at all with breastfeeding in any training session I’m running.

  • Ruth thank you for your post, it is an area that needs to be addressed urgently. Its all well and good having a leadership program but we also need to change the way the volunteer party work as well.

    I think I would be correct in saying that this isn’t just a Lib Dem problem, all parties at the top agree on promoting equality but the leaders words come unstuck with the old fashioned attitudes of the volunteers further down. The big difference for us though is the lack of paid support staff meaning more work of unpaid PPCs, organisers and activists.

    I have always been concerned that many local parties expect their PPC to do everything even though they are flogging their guts out in a seat that is normally a foregone conclusion as most seats are safe seats for other parties or we are squeezed out in many marginals. We wouldn’t expect it from a paper council candidate so why should we expect it from what is a paper PPC?

  • Ruth Bright 12th Oct '11 - 7:23pm

    Thank you all very much for your comments. Matthew and Simon – as the ninth child of a bricklayer I accept totally that class is an issue too. I was, however, with a good education able to disguise my origins and my native Hampshire accent (alas that I needed to) – there is no disguising being a mum!

    Simon – a few days I ago I “celebrated” 26 years as a party member. Were I a fresh-faced 18 year-old at the LSE in 2011 rather than 1985 would I join again? I can’t know. What I do know is that I care deeply about the party and only raised these issues publicly because precious little was done when I raised them privately.

    Liberal Neil – you were definitely one of the good guys during this episode (as regional campaigns’ officer when I was a PPC). Unfortunately, as I say in my post, for the most part it is not regional and national figures but local party backwoodsmen whose attitudes need to change.

  • paul barker 12th Oct '11 - 7:57pm

    Can I just say that LDV is precisely the right place to discuss this. If we give ammunition to our “enemies” all the better. A bit of embarrasement might help us change.
    Next week I will be at a hustings to choose our Candidate for The London Assembly. Another all male shortlist like the one where we chose our Mayoral Candidate & the one for our PPC.
    Why does the idea of All-Women shortlists cause such horror when All-Men lists are apparently OK ?

  • Sadie Smith 12th Oct '11 - 8:29pm

    Thanks for all this discussion.
    There ought to be practical things we can do. But I suspect other Parties have done equally dreadful things.
    We need to put in support for any Candidate, as well as change attitudes.
    You should hear some of the sexist comments male Labour Councillors make!

  • Jenny Barnes 12th Oct '11 - 8:36pm

    “A huge amount of work is required of a PPC” Yes, and also from any candidate for a council seat. Ok, not as much, but still. Where is the rest of the party? I remember driving our PPC to a target seat review – I was the only member of the whole constituency who was prepared to spend 3 hours with her to support that activity. If the party relies on candidates doing all the work, the result is not many successes.

  • Simon McGrath 12th Oct '11 - 8:44pm

    @Paul “Why does the idea of All-Women shortlists cause such horror when All-Men lists are apparently OK ?”
    because our party is against discrimination, even for ‘good’ reasons?

  • Foregone Conclusion 12th Oct '11 - 9:49pm

    Recently in my area, we selected a new candidate for my ward (well, it was uncontested, so by ‘we’ I mean ‘the powers that be’). In the selection process, the female candidate was asked by a member of the selection panel, possibly jokingly, whether her husband would mind her not being around to cook his tea. Given that the panellist in question isn’t actually a member of our party (although he used to be), this is even more grating. I don’t want to give the impression that we’re a Local Party made up of unreconstructed neanderthals – we have several really strong, popular women councillors and activists, and it’s quite possible that one of them will be our next PPC. I think you find pockets of this kind of sentiment everywhere, although they’re usually pretty small, in this case, probably restricted to a single ward. It’s our job to challenge it wherever we find it.

    By the way, I thoroughly approve of Ruth bringing this into the open rather than putting it on the Members’ Forum. Some people would just like this all to be swept under the carpet, or to pretend that simply because we believe in equal rights that this is always carried into practice. This way, that can’t happen.

  • David Wright 13th Oct '11 - 12:36am

    One of our Councillors used to take her (very young) baby into Council meetings. We saw nothing wrong in that – after all, the Council didn’t provide a crèche – but the Conservatives were scandalised. Fortunately they could not do much about it at the time. Nevertheless they made it unnecessarily stressful for her, and sadly she didn’t stand for re-election at the end of her term.

    As to the unreconstructed attitudes of some, unfortunately there are people like that about. But if any are in OUR Party, they need to be told very firmly, e.g. by their Local Party Chair, that their behaviour is illiberal and cannot be tolerated. (I realise that this is sometimes easier said than done.)

  • Ruth Bright 13th Oct '11 - 7:46am

    I think we could build on Caron’s idea by setting up some kind of timebank to help PPCs who need to take leave. As a dormant person on the approved list I would be happy to cover for a few weeks for a PPC in my region who was on maternity leave. I am sure there are others who would be willing to help in this way; it is just a matter of getting organised. Also, PPCs need to admit when they need support instead of toughing things out and subsequently burning out.

    Sadie Smith – I don’t doubt for a minute that other parties have a problem too. Nearly twenty years ago, as a young councillor in Southwark, my punishment from Labour for having waist-length black hair was to be given the nicknames: “Barbie”, “Morticia” and “Mata Hari”. These nicknames were used openly, in front of officers and once even in open committee. I trust Southwark Labour have improved since then but I wouldn’t stake my life on it!

  • It doesn’t help that so many members are retired, and of an age and background where work was 9-5 and strictly optional for women. Some don’t seem to understand that paying the mortgage has to take priority and that most of us have longer hours and commutes these days. Perhaps that’s why so few candidates with “real world” jobs make it.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience Ruth – and it’s nice to have a thread on this subject that doesn’t just revolve around “All women shortlists: yes or no?”. There are a multitude of factors that prevent women from progressing in politics and my hunch is that bias on the part of selection committees is not the largest one.

    Some kind of maternity cover arrangement for PPCs sounds like a good idea. Can cover be arranged for councillors as well or do you then run into the problem of unelected officials? Could people run for office on a job-share ticket?

    The other system that it seems we should have is a strong and sympathetic complaints procedure to deal with members of selection panels who engage in some of the behaviours described above. Yes, the local party chair should be dealing with these people but the threat of an outside investigation might be a stronger deterrent.

  • Ruth: what you have been through is absolutely unacceptable, and we need to ensure that it doesn’t happen to future candidates.
    There are some practical things that the FE approved in January – and which was then endorsed by Federal Conference in Sheffield in March – in my Candidate Review. Much of the focus publicly has been on the Leadership Programme, but actually there were many recommendations on providing more support for candidates, whatever the type of seat.

    Key to this is an agreement/concordat between the ppc and the local party, where it is set out exactly what both expect of the other. This will include practical things like the amount of time outside and then inside the short campaign, what support – people and money – the local party will produce. That latter point would mean that whilst taking some maternity leave, the local party should ensure that someone is doing your letters for casework. This agreement will be seen by a mediator, probably based in the region, but separate from the local party, who will help negotiate if problems emerge, or things change. And clearly, maternity arrangements would need to be openly discussed!
    I also recommended that every candidate, once selected, has a mentor. You know how isolating being a ppc can be, and having named person from outside the constituency, who has been through it themselves, can help talk things through with you.
    We also need to make sure that diversity training is available to more than just our selection committees!
    We must have candidates from every stage of life, and representing the country in their diversity. We must also make it possible for them to stand, and not expect them to do everything, on their own, all the time!
    Thanks again for your frank posting. We need to learn from it. And change some attitudes too for the future.

  • Sal – I am honoured that you have responded to this post as I know you are taking many of the relevant issues by the scruff of the neck! Thank you all for your comments, forgive me if I respond fairly briefly.

    Almost everyone is fed up of the model of PPC as Superman/Superwoman. Lib Dem PPCs have to work bloody hard to get elected – fine. But they should not have to do EVERYTHING. I doubt very much if when Yvette Cooper and Louise Mensch were candidates they were expected to personally deliver three thousand “Labour Rose” or “In Touch” leaflets once a week or be considered a waste of space!

    William – fine to training for women. Bring it on! What I was trying to say is that sometimes the emphasis is too much on how women should develop as candidates (ie it’s the women who are at fault for not being good enough) not how much their local parties need to develop and provide a supportive environment (Sal touched on this).

    Caroline – very happy to help.

    Dave – good point about the autonomy of local parties. Many of my problems were caused not at constituency but at branch/ward level. Our strongest branch had a “blokey”/ “mates down the pub” feel and they basically acted like they were a law unto themselves.

    Ed – I believe Dinti Batstone has worked on protocols for councillors re maternity leave. I feel that two of my “sister” councillors in Southwark were treated rather shabbily when they had babies (neither councillor stood again). Fortunately the group in Southwark learnt from its mistakes and a Lib Dem Cabinet member (the superb Lisa Rajan) was the first councillor I know of who was formally granted maternity leave with a colleague temporarily acting up on her behalf.

    Also, many thanks to my friend Alison who got me out of my rut and gave me the courage to write about all this.

  • Don Lawrence 14th Oct '11 - 2:00pm

    It is very disappointing that so few of those posting have chosen to respond to Matthew Huntbach’s post. Our intense middle classness is ignored, while our simple weakness (we rarely win unless we have an exceptional, workaholic candidate, which means candidates have to work continuously and the loss of a candidate for several weeks, whether due to maternity or an unforseen reason would almost certainly scupper any chance of a win), simply passed over by a tidal wave of sadness at the unfairness of it all.

    The world is unfair. Wanting to do something meaningful about it for the benefit of the whole of society is why we are Liberal Democrats. Get out there and campaign against big bankers bonuses, the use of tax havens by friends of the Tories to hide their income from the tax-man, the use of child labour by multinationals or the effective enslavement of young women into prostitution. Above all get out there and campaign to get more Lib Dem MPs elected to do something about it, because whether a he or a she, the important fact is that each is a Lib Dem.

  • @Foregone Conclusion – notwithstanding the sexist comment, what on earth was someone who is not a party member doing on a selection panel?? Surely that must be against some rules somewhere?

    Ruth – it’s not just women who suffer the kinds of family pressure, though it’s probably worse towards women. In the last 4.5 years as a councillor, I’ve had to attend community council meetings directly after work, not seeing my family for up to 48 hours – and being asked by the public to justify it when I decide my family is more important. I’ve had to give up holiday time to attend council meetings held during the day, meaning that I’ve not been able to take time with my family. It’s all part of the reason why I’m giving up after only one term.

    As a PPC, though, there’s absolutely no excuse for the behaviour of that local party chair (and if it had been me on the end of that, I’d have resigned as PPC on the spot.) It’s something that no training for PPCs in the world can sort – really, what’s needed is a retraining of those members and a message from the party that there’s no place for people like that in the party hierarchy.

  • Ruth Bright 15th Oct '11 - 3:03pm

    KL – Agreed that this affects men too.

    Just for the record the main problem was with councillors and branch chairs not constituency chairs and I did resign in the end. Had I resigned after the first difficulties when my first baby was born I would have been a PPC for a mere 7 months and I am sure I would have blamed for my lack of staying power. Not many PPCs would get another seat if they resigned after 7 months! That mattered at the time; now I’m past caring and would do things differently.

  • Hi there, may I assure you that this is a cross party problem, I myself am I Labour Councillor and have experienced the same thing, I have been accussed of whinging when I needed time off for my young child. Don’t let anyone silence you, its the only way things will improve. Take Care. x

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