Pregnant pause

Ruth BrightHere is a picture of a woman. There is something strange about her. Can you spot it? Well of course you can. She is from a very small and curious minority. She is a Liberal Democrat activist! The bump? Well that puts her in a numerically far more significant group. 700,000 women in this country have a baby each year. Having a baby is a normal thing to do. All the time people are saying that they want more candidates to be “normal” people. But being a pregnant candidate some years ago made me feel that I was in a freak show, the ultimate “elephant in the room”. Sadly I do not think that things in the party have changed very much.

Here are my top 6 clumsy attitudes to my “political” pregnancy:

  • Doing a speech and being told by a former councillor that I mustn’t get too big;
  • Being told by a former PPC’s wife at a party fundraiser that I was “a walking caesarean”;
  • “Oh no not another one”- reaction from a party chair when he spotted my second pregnancy;
  • “I’m afraid I could spot you all the way down the corridor” – party veteran at the Commons when I was 8 months pregnant;
  • “Have you got another one in there?” comment from local treasurer at my failure to shift the post-baby weight
  • Removal of my baby birth announcement from the local party website as it might help my imminent re-selection (!).

We cannot leave this up to “the liberal family”. Pregnant women need formal protection from discrimination in all walks of life including the Liberal Democrats. Interestingly, at just the time felt I had to bow out from the electoral treadmill as a mum of two a male Tory PPC was elected in “my” patch who then went on to father three babies in his first five years in parliament. Not a word (quite rightly) has been uttered about his lack of commitment to his constituency. Would a woman have been afforded the same treatment?

Tim Farron has kindly replied to an e-mail from me saying he would be willing to look further at this issue. 80% of women become mothers. If we do not find a way of making candidacy and motherhood compatible we miss out on an enormous number of potential activists. I would suggest that candidates be entitled to at least six months maternity leave (half of the statutory leave); at the moment there is no provision for PPCs to take any leave whatsoever. Remember we are talking about a voluntary role here and the vast majority of us will be fighting seats we have no hope of ever winning however little leave we take. What do LDV readers think? How can we all help to cover for a colleague who might be on leave and how can we enable women to return as party activists after they have had a baby?

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

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26 Comments

  • I find your treatment disgraceful, Ruth (I know you have described aspects of this before on LDV). Certainly I remember how male PPCs used to be encouraged by many supporters to be “expecting” while on the campaign trail – and if you could become a father a decent, but not too long, interval before the election, that would likely result in a good increase in your vote. What, without society’s sexism is different about a woman becoming a mother in similar circumstances. Both mother and father can take maternity or paternity leave?

  • Ruth’s clearly right about the problem, but I’m not sure formal protections make any sense. I don’t understand what legislation and punitive measures would look like in this situation, or if they could really change social attitudes, so Ruth, can you explain practically what changes you’d like?

  • Stephen Howse 9th Sep '15 - 1:51pm

    “I would suggest that candidates be entitled to at least six months maternity leave (half of the statutory leave); at the moment there is no provision for PPCs to take any leave whatsoever.”

    Thinking practically, that’s six months without involvement in local campaigns, without local press, without fundraising, etc. I understand the rationale behind this idea, but it’d give opposition politicians a huge advantage.

    Perhaps one way of enabling some new mothers to stand as candidates would be to encourage the partners of female PPCs (where they have partners) to step up to the plate and take more paternity leave. It’d do nothing for mothers without partners, so we’d need to think of another solution for those women, but it’d be a way of helping some. As Tim says, with shared parental leave there’s nothing to stop men taking as much leave as women.

  • Those examples make sober reading.

    Echoing the above comment I would be interested to know how the maternity leave option would work (what would be a normal requirement that would be left), particularly aware that local media comment could be possible with more support and losing the media coverage could be avoided.

    Another point is that even after 6 months there needs to be some adaptation to a mother for longer.

  • Richard Underhill 9th Sep '15 - 2:47pm

    Relevant experience affecting income, schooling and life in general which voters sift.

  • Ruth Bright 9th Sep '15 - 2:56pm

    Joe – you are sweet . It was ages ago but the reasons why I keep droning on about my experience is that I know of women who have been driven out of activism much more recently. It is safe for me to raise these issues because I am a has-been!

    Stephen I see what you mean . My husband went part time to help when I had my first baby but he was taking a career and financial hit that not many partners would be able or willing to take. When I was first selected social media was not the phenomenon it is now. There are lots more ways now for a candidate to appear active when she is engaging with issues but not physically able to get out and about.

  • Stephen Howse 9th Sep '15 - 3:13pm

    Thanks for your response, Ruth.

    In an area with lots of active and energetic Lib Dems campaigning and doing things in their communities a candidate not being able to get out and about wouldn’t be such an issue, definitely. All a PPC with a newborn would need to do then would be to approve press releases and maybe get out to do the occasional photo op with local campaigners. Where there’s a strong Lib Dem team which can do things for itself, they could definitely ameliorate to a large extent their PPC’s absence. Things’d be more difficult in an area where local campaigning isn’t quite so well developed or capable of evolving without a hefty shove from the centre.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Sep '15 - 4:12pm

    Sorry about the rude comments you experienced. Could pregnant women not be entitled to an extra member of staff from the local party, alongside leave? I don’t think leave alone is going to suffice. People like to know their candidate has a strong team around them.

    Just an idea.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Sep '15 - 4:15pm

    Eddie, only a tiny number of local parties have staff at all.

  • Ruth Bright 9th Sep '15 - 4:32pm

    Eddie and others. I do think in exceptional circumstances in a target seat the party really would have to pay for extra cover. In the vast majority of seats however I think it would be possible to find a volunteer(s) to provide cover. Many people seeking approval lack experience, many people on the approved list (like me) are unlikely to stand in a serious seat again but would like to help someone else. What better way to gain experience as a trainee PPC or contribute as a “retired” PPC than to provide a few months maternity cover for another candidate in the same or nearby region?

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Sep '15 - 4:51pm

    Thanks Caron. I did think a paid member of staff might be a bit much, but perhaps they could borrow some support from HQ somehow?

    Just some ideas.

  • Ruth Bright 9th Sep '15 - 7:47pm

    David that is a reasonable question. I have felt very bitter about what happened but read the Everyday Sexism website, sadly it is not only the Lib Dems with a problem. If I rejected every institution or workplace or location where I had experienced sexism I would be a very isolated person indeed. I believe Tim Farron can salvage the Lib Dems and as a lover of history I believe the party can reclaim its century old heritage as a party of social reform – hopefully in my lifetime!

  • David – not naïve, maybe pig-headed though!

    At the ground level of party logistics, sorry Tim13 and ChrisB I didn’t really answer your very valid points earlier so will try to do so now. Quite simply I believe PPCs should have six months protected leave under selection rules ie they should not have to keep going back to their local party as I did for a bit more leave and a bit more until everyone was frustrated and fed up. At least we would have known where we were from the beginning. We cannot go on with PPCs (of any hue, gender or age!) being expected to do everything. That leads to burn-out, bankruptcy and lack of diversity.

    Funnily enough when I had my first baby in 2003 I found she was a huge advantage to me amongst the electorate (though perhaps I regret her prominence a bit now)!

  • Good to raise this Ruth. (Many local parties have unreasonable expectations of the availability of their PPCs irrespective of gender.) Happy to raise with candidates Ctte. Can you email me to discuss? [email protected]

  • There needs to be much more thought on the issue of parenthood and parliament in general. I was horrified to read (and it escapes me where) about the attitude to a female MP who needed to take her children in the HoC for a late vote. Some seemed so intent on keeping their old boys club that they would rather her constituent’s representative did not vote at all…

    Of course parental leave does have the potential to leave constituents without a voice in Parliament so there would need to be some sensible maternity / paternity leave proxy arrangement in place.

  • Ruth Bright 10th Sep '15 - 7:03pm

    Stephen Robinson thank you that’s really positive.

    Steve Way – I know vote pairing arrangements worked really well for a council colleague on maternity leave.

  • Ruth,

    I agree the party needs to realise the 21st century started more than 15 years ago!

    When you talk about 6 months maternity leave, what do you really mean? For paid employees there is a strict limit on the “keeping in touch days” they are allowed to take, without losing maternity pay. So really they cannot be seen to “work”. For an unpaid PPC that would not apply, I guess. It is also not really possible to anyone to substitute for the public role of a PPC, although cover could deal with correspondence and go out delivering leaflets and attending fundraising events…

    Do you think it is reasonable for a PPC with a newborn to keep quite a high profile on the internet and press without actually going out campaigning? In that case I don’t see an insuperable problem other than maybe in the run-up to a general election.

    I agree with you that a solidarity vote would almost certainly compensate for any losses! Too many parties rely on PPC’s (and councillors) to deliver half the leaflets.

    I would say the real problem for any parent is when they need to go back to work after any maternity leave – balancing work and small children is really difficult unless a full-time carer is available, and adding campaigning most evenings could be too much? These days so many families have to have both parents in full-time work, just to make ends meet, and I really doubt if many male ppc’s with children are facing those circumstances, unless the hidden backup of grandparents nearby are taking the strain..

  • Ruth Bright 10th Sep '15 - 9:38pm

    Andrew that is a very interesting point about the limit on “keeping in touch” days. Most PPCS will be on maternity leave from their paid job too. An employer might well be irritated about an employee on leave from her day job who manages to be constantly splashed all over the local papers as a candidate during that same period!

    Other than in the immediate lead up to an election I think it would be possible to substitute the PPC. I see what you mean about keeping a high profile from home as it were during the six months. That could work. The only problem being that, to give you some solid examples, I was shamed into doing some correspondence from my hospital bed two days after a Caesarean and also some phone canvassing a few weeks later when I was ill and the baby was recovering from meningitis. There has to be a period of leave which is totally protected.

  • Ruth,

    I believe there is an absolute ban on going back to work until 2 weeks after the birth and that should certainly apply to PPC correspondence and telephone canvassing (same when any candidate, male or female, is ill). You were bullied I am afraid… (sounds par for the course from what you say).

    This is an area where there should simply be flexibility and common sense within a framework that protects the candidate from undue pressure and provides the resource to ensure that election chances are not damaged. Every case is going to be different in detail. But no election is worth more than a baby with meningitis or the health of the candidate and the sooner that people realise that the better…

  • re. irritated employers: They will just need to cope!

  • Quite so!

  • AndrewMcC & Ruth Bright – An interesting conversation and I would not only agree with andrew that ” You were bullied I am afraid”, but add that you seem to be carrying the effects of this bullying by only suggesting “half of the statutory leave” rather than asking for parity with MPs and/or full statutory.

    To me being a PPC has many similarities to being an intern and hence is really a form of employment and so should be treated as such. Apart from an active election campaign, I don’t see too much of a problem, particularly when you look at how many constituencies, over the years, have had a candidate ‘parachuted in’ for the election…

  • Ruth Bright 11th Sep '15 - 4:12pm

    Funny you should mention that Roland. .. I asked my region for twelve months leave in 2007 and was told in no uncertain terms that there was no such thing as maternity leave for Candidates.

    The intern equivalence is an interesting one. I am sure anyone from my local party would reject the term bullying but that was the cumulative effect on someone who was vulnerable (and sleep deprived!) at the time.

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