It is time Labour thought radically about parenthood, writes Sam Russell
It is March 2016 and my campaign as Labour’s London assembly candidate for Bexley and Bromley is well underway. At a day care centre in Bromley, Sadiq Khan and I are speaking to staff and service users, , who tell us about their fears for the future in the face of local council incompetence and national Tory contempt.
Strapped to the front of me is my baby son, Rowan. He has been wide awake but wonderfully quiet. At eight months old, a good chunk of his life has been spent with daddy on the doorstep.
My wife, Gemma, and I are one of only two per cent of eligible couples who have taken shared parental leave (SPL). In 2016 I took five months off work to look after Rowan – coinciding neatly with the London assembly elections.
Rowan was a constant feature of my campaign. Despite a few raised eyebrows, everyone who I came across, from Sadiq’s campaign to our local team in Bexley and Bromley, was supportive of what I was doing and quickly got used to the baby on my front and the bag on my back.
Gemma and I always wanted to share the time off to look after Rowan. As someone who was raised for a time by a single father, I always wanted to spend time looking after my children and SPL made that decision even easier. But it is not a perfect arrangement, and the lack of take-up shows there is still much to do to tackle the stigma that exists around stay-at-home dads.
Coming away from work and staying at home with the baby is a daunting idea. Do bibs and bottles really compare with a day in the office? And would people think less of me for doing it? What happens if I am the ‘token dad’ at classes and play sessions? These are perfectly valid questions to ask, but stem from the fear of taking a stand against traditional gender-based roles within the family.
While SPL goes some way to addressing these questions, there is further to go. While dads worry about the consequences of taking time off, mums have no choice but to face them head on, hoping that they will not face discrimination. The financial conditions around SPL can mitigate against genuinely flexible decision making, as fathers are only entitled to statutory pay. Many companies offer enhanced pay for maternity leave, but it is not common practice for fathers choosing SPL to benefit, and this impacts the decisions families make.
SPL will only achieve its full potential if it delivers genuine choice for parents. Tracy Brabin’s recent call to extend SPL to self-employed and freelance workers is an important step in the right direction and shows that Labour has the ambition and the courage to set the agenda on this issue.
Labour should consider radical policies such as ending the concept of ‘maternity’ and ‘paternity’ leave. Instead, each child should have a parental leave allowance, which parents can decide how best to share. This would maximise choice for parents and encourage employers to introduce parental leave policies that can be accessed equally by both parents.
2016 saw us achieve victory for Sadiq Khan and record the highest number of votes ever recorded in Bexley and Bromley. The experience – and enjoyment – of those five months caring for my son and fighting for our party made every second worthwhile and I believe that we should do everything we can to give parents the choice to take leave in the way that works best for them.
Sam Russell is a former prospective parliamentary candidate and London assembly candidate
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