An edited version of this can be found at the Huffington Post UK.
Some time ago, well May 2012, I was elected as a local councillor to represent my ward. This is no small feat but to have campaigned whilst heavily pregnant, pausing to give birth to my eldest daughter, and then getting back on the campaign trail weeks later makes it a big deal. Or slightly bonkers.
The average term of office for a female councillor is five years compared to twelve years of her male counterpart. In this post, I want to explore some of the challenges I faced as an elected member that might explain some of the reasons for that disparity and to point to the campaign for parental leave being led by the Labour Women’s Network.
I preface the following with an assurance that there was much about being a councillor that I enjoyed. It was an honour to work my socks off representing my community, solve casework and fight for dwindling services.
I was elected at the start of the most tumultuous time for local government and it was heartbreaking to watch the systematic dismantling of services. As Alan Bennett in Allelujah wrote, “if the state is seen to work, we will never be rid of it”, so the vandalism by central government has continued and it is no surprise that councils are now going bankrupt.
In the day to day life of casework, meetings and campaigning I was doing my best to bring up a tiny baby, adjust to motherhood and live with the additional anxiety of my father’s health.
By the time I gave birth to my second daughter a couple of years later, the tensions between public life, grieving for my father, taking maternity leave from my full time academic job and trying to nurture my family were too much. There was no coinciding parental leave from my council work so, fifteen months later and exhausted, having served a full term I stood down.
Here are some of the particular challenges I faced during my term as a new mother and elected member:
- I campaigned literally up to the birth of my eldest. I went from walking up the hills of my ward to knock on doors to holding her within 36 hours.
- Worried about getting me out there I was urged to campaign again when she was two weeks old. I understand the concerns about trying to take a seat but when your candidate is still experiencing postpartum bleeding, has leaky breasts every time she anxiously thinks of her baby back at the house, and can barely keep her eyes open, it’s particularly challenging. It was a similar scenario when I was expected to campaign for a fellow ward councillor in the immediate weeks and months following the birth of my second daughter.
- My mother drove 280 mile round trips to look after my children (including a tiny Smallest) in the member’s room so I could attend meetings.
- I was guilted by officers, fellow councillors and the opposition for making use of designated council expenses to cover modest childcare costs for my baby when I attended meetings. My eldest went into part time childcare when she was three months old. I was living on the basic allowance awarded to councillors and working full time at that role.
- The lack of parental leave persisted by the time I had our second daughter. I worked up to her birth on my council role because there was a significant change to local refuse services being rolled out. I have memories, hazy – darkened by postnatal depression and grief – of stabbing out emails on my iPad to solve bin problems whilst trying to nurse a tongue-tied newborn. There was no reallocation of work for a new mother, you were expected to get on with it.
- Council meetings were always held in the early evening so that meant missing bedtime for my girls or desperately hoping I would make it back in time to nurse. One time I took Smallest to a meeting when she was a couple of weeks old. She was bundled up in a sling and quiet as a mouse. As I left the meeting I heard a member of the public call me “disgusting” for taking her there.
- When my mother couldn’t cover childcare for council meetings my husband relied on the kindness of his colleagues to leave work early and get the girls. Having grown anxious about the public reaction to a mother taking her baby to Full Council, I left part way through so that I could run to the train station, pass her into the arms of my husband who was standing at the train doors and on his way home to collect our eldest. I would run back to the meeting.
These examples are some of the cultural and practical issues that I faced as a woman in politics. I was chewing this over with my friend, and fellow ex councillor, Claire Reynolds who is one of the fabulous women spearheading the Labour Women’s Network campaign for #BabyLeave. She summarised the inherent cultural issues as:
“Generally longer serving men and women saying things have to be done a certain way when they simply don’t. Being seen to be ‘present’ versus achieving real outcomes for your community e.g. showing your face for the campaign photo versus making many more contacts in your own time by phone. The endless tea time meetings because they’ve always been at that time. The equally endless, and unnecessary, work pressure which is hard not to internalise because – in the absence of a meritocracy – progress requires patronage.”
Trying to change the structure
Looking back, the lack of a parental leave policy seriously impacted on my family life and mental health. My wonderful first term colleagues on the council, one of whom was Claire who had faced mirror image challenges throughout her pregnancies and motherhood, resolved to try and make a difference to anyone following after us.
We drafted a simple but effective motion to the Labour Group which called for a change in Full Council start times and an official parental leave policy. The former was also designed to help those with caring responsibilities and who also worked full time. The latter was about relieving women of mandatory meeting attendance and ensuring her workload was reallocated to fellow ward councillors for a period of six months.
At the meeting, we gave an impassioned presentation, supported by a younger male councillor. As a trio we were all standing down that year having become disillusioned for different reasons. The motion was kicked into the long grass after a rather disingenuous debate. No parental leave policy followed and the loss of that positive legacy was my saddest regret – for the councillors, their partners and babies who came after me.
A national campaign
Three years on and the campaign for #BabyLeave is being taken up by the Labour Women’s Network and I have passed on images of me campaigning and litter picking whilst carrying a small human for use in their materials. As the farce of heavily pregnant MPs being whipped to return to Westminster to vote has shown, this campaign isn’t isolated to councillors either. There is a deep rift between political life and real life, and it must be rectified.
So, I write this post, not as a criticism of the council that I served under but, as a call for major change in politics for women, parents and their families. Wards and constituencies must be represented by a balance of people that reflects the communities they come from and that includes women who juggle politics and motherhood. Put simply, being a woman with a young baby must not continue to be a barrier to public life.
A call to action
To get involved or support the Labour Women’s Network #BabyLeave campaign visit the conference page which includes the Parental Leave motion: http://www.lwn.org.uk/conf_2018. You can get in touch with the Network via their Facebook page. In particular, they are looking for similar testimonies to include in a report on parental leave that is being co-written with the Local Government Association.
Lastly, if you are a Labour member please write to your CLP Secretary and ask them to vote for “childcare” in the Priority Ballot for Women’s Conference. This would give the LWN a chance to debate the baby leave for councillors motion – more details here.