Formal parental leave for those in public life is still too rare – Labour must step up and change the status quo, explains Claire Reynolds
You cannot have it all, women are often told. However, as work-life juggles go, having to choose between delivering your baby by caesarean as planned, or having your vote against the Brexit deal counted, is a fairly extreme dichotomy. This was Labour member of parliament Tulip Siddiq’s unconscionable dilemma in January; a living example of the archaic, inflexible, and frankly discriminatory nature of public life.
Siddiq explained her faith in the pairing system had been destroyed after the Tories flagrantly abused it last year to disenfranchise Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson on another key Brexit vote. ‘Pairing’ – linking opposing absent voters with one another to cancel each other out – is a system which relies on trust, and now that trust is gone.
Happily, Siddiq’s vote was counted, her baby Raphael arrived safely a couple of days later, and on the back of this scandal, leader of the house Andrea Leadsom has finally made moves to introduce proxy voting for baby leave in the House of Commons. Sisterly shout outs are due here to both Siddiq and Swinson, as well as mother of the house Harriet Harman, another key champion of this agenda.
It also represents a win for Labour Women’s Network. Our campaign demanding baby leave for councillors and MPs continues to build momentum. LWN – which exists to secure women’s equality in the Labour party – successfully passed a motion on this at Women’s Conference, gaining support from a cross section of the party, united in frustration.
And the reality is extremely frustrating. In almost every other job, parents get to have a break when they welcome a new child to the family, through birth or adoption. A break to physically and mentally recover, to bond, and to establish routines. I myself had to chair public meetings as a councillor while breastfeeding a newborn baby. Motions colleagues and I brought to the Labour group proposing a proper parental leave policy were repeatedly rejected amid erroneous legal concerns.
LWN members report being whipped to campaign right up to their due date; conducting casework from the labour ward; suffering post-natal depression worsened by lack of respite; and indeed retiring early from elected office due to the absence of baby leave and support. We work so hard as a party, through positive action and culture change, to get brilliant women into office. We should put as much effort into retaining them.
As of 2017, only four per cent of British councils had a formal parental leave policy for councillors. This must now change. With input from LWN, the Local Government Association has launched a draft policy ready to be adopted. Thanks to councillors including Lib Peck and Alice Perry, as well as LWN’s Nan Sloane, the policy is comprehensive, and legally watertight. It is clear that parents should go back into the roles and remuneration they had before their leave. It switches responsibility for ensuring casework and surgeries are covered from the parent to the chief whip. It puts to bed tired objections about the ambiguous fiscal and employee rights of councillors. Pass it through your Labour group now.
Some problems which reduce women’s power and agency in politics require complex and lengthy solutions. Sorting out baby leave for councillors and MPs is not one of them. Which makes it all the more maddening that we have not yet just fixed it. There can be no more excuses: the next Labour government must legislate for it.
Claire Reynolds is national officer of Labour Women’s Network, and a former councillor in the Greater Manchester borough of Tameside
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