How easy is it to stand for parliament when you are a working mother with a baby? Extremely difficult if not near impossible.
When my daughter Larissa, was four months old I was selected as the parliamentary candidate for the Tory safe seat of Spelthorne. The photo accompanying the press release was picture perfect – a local mother hugging her beautiful baby, finally a candidate who understood the struggles of a young working family. Larissa was our ‘secret weapon’.
Unfortunately, motherhood was as much a burden as it was an asset, especially when I returned to work. The demands of a political campaign are naturally time consuming, and a full-time job in itself, but so is a baby. Unlike my counterparts in neighbouring constituencies I was unable to undertake evening canvassing, attend weekday residents’ meetings and enjoy socials in other constituencies. Canvassing in nearby winnable seats was off the cards. With childcare having to be arranged in advance I had to prioritise campaign activities. My husband, Pierre, was very supportive but he could not shoulder all the childcare.
Leaflets in one hand and pram in the other became normal when canvassing. Many voters melted at the sight of the cute smile Larissa offered. Those with families displayed an affinity with a candidate who was clearly struggling with work-life balance. I found some voters had no time to talk to me but somehow had plenty of time to coo at the baby!
The crunch point came when Larissa started nursery. She suffered from a plethora of bugs and needed extra attention – I also came down with everything she caught. I found myself physically unable to canvass. It was a long drawn out period of frustration and I knew my agent and volunteers were understandably becoming annoyed. They were canvassing for a parliamentary candidate who never seemed to be around. I could not explain face-to-face that I was still working behind the scenes answering emails and calls, and doing hustings preparation. I felt I was not meeting expectations and the contrast between myself and other candidates was stark. They were up at 5am answering voter emails while I was up at 5am changing nappies. They knocked on voters’ doors everyday in their own and other constituencies, whereas I just hoped I would be well enough to canvass my own constituency at weekends. Perhaps the local mother was not such a great idea.
The situation improved when I took time off work. I proved my worth during hustings and finally I was able to fully participate during the last stretch of the election. Volunteers saw I was trying my hardest and had the ability to be a good candidate. Ultimately they were forgiving and supportive. I enjoyed the experience and did not regret my ambitious decision to be a candidate and I was delighted with the results. Spelthorne Labour’s vote increased and we were the only party to take a council seat from the Tories, our first in sixteen years. Spelthorne gained the highest percentage Labour vote in Surrey.
For new parents to stand for parliament the Labour party must be understanding. It must recognise they will not be able to sacrifice as much time to campaigning as others, and may be more subject to last minute family emergencies. The Labour party should establishes a permanent network that encourages new parents, especially mothers, to become candidates, and promote the benefits they offer such as greater affiliation with the electorate. It should develop guidelines on support for constituencies who select new parents as candidates. The network could advise candidates on how to balance their campaign with family and work duties, and how to help volunteers understand their time limits to avoid resentment. It may even provide financial support by contributing to babysitting.
Labour cannot get any closer to the electorate than a struggling mother who still wants to fulfil her ambitions and not be punished by the workplace for motherhood. Labour was accused of not attracting aspirational voters, but by helping new ambitious mothers to stand for parliament Labour will become the party of aspiration.
Rebecca Geach is the former parliamentary candidate for Spelthorne
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