How to get a better MP class? Help mothers run for parliament | women in politics

SAshby’s first insight into what it means to be a politician involves feeling overwhelmingly condescending. She was a teenager in South Wales when the local Tory MP visited her school to discuss Welsh devolution. Young Ashby plucked up the courage to ask a question about the Welsh language and was told, she said scathingly, to ask for something ‘sensitive’. “I always remembered that,” she said. “That was my first impression of what a politician was.”

But the 40-year-old single mother of three may end up having the last laugh; in May she won one of the first 18 grants from MotherED, Labor MP Stella Creasy’s project encouraging more mothers to run for parliament. After months of scandals, sordidness and complaints that politics is alienated from ordinary life, the aim is to shake things up a bit.

The grants of up to £2,000 are designed to cover campaign childcare costs, but also to signal that mothers – far from being dated or sidelined – are valued in politics.

For Ashby, who works part-time for a project helping mothers get back to work and has three daughters aged 11, 8 and 4, the money makes applying for the selection in her hometown of Chepstow suddenly seem achievable .

“I thought it would be something I couldn’t start thinking about until later in life, when the kids were older. It made me think it might be possible now,” she says.

“When you have kids, your perspective changes – there’s so much power and so much passion. But so many mums can’t go back to work – the mums I work with are often long-term unemployed and for many of them there are so many barriers. I feel like Westminster isn’t very representative of a lot of mums I know.

Meanwhile, fellow scholarship recipient Nazia Rehman, a full-time Labor Wigan councilor and mother of three, thinks the money also carries more symbolic weight: ‘It sends a message that mothers can be ambitious . I think this will only start a wider debate in the community that you can raise your children, you can do all the care work and still aspire to pursue your dreams.

Some may wonder why a woman wants to join a parliament still mired in allegations of sexual misconduct. (Last week, former Scottish National Party chief whip Patrick Grady became the latest MP to face a brief suspension for making an unwanted sexual advance to a staff member.)

Yet, says Creasy, exasperation with dirty politics seems to galvanize women to sign up: “They think parliament is a place where privileges and rights have come together and twisted, and it needs people who just don’t come from that background. And one group of people currently missing are moms.

The point of subsidizing mothers, she added, is not to discriminate against childless women, but to remove barriers for an underrepresented group: “Evidence shows, time and time again, that women with children don’t run for office, because of the costs and practicalities of trying to look after your children and run a campaign.

The unexpected bonus, however, is that MotherED seems to be attracting candidates who don’t necessarily fit the standard Westminster model. A third were single mothers and a third were BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) women. Could relatively small grants be an answer to a parliament that, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, has begun to look dangerously out of touch?

Nazia Rehman, a Labor councilor from Wigan and mother of three, received one of the grants. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

When writer Isabel Hardman polled MPs for her book Why we get bad politicians, she found that on average getting elected cost them £11,000 each out of their own pocket, factoring in time off for campaigning, travel, overnight stays and ad hoc expenses such as buying drinks to thank the volunteers. But in the marginal seats, some spent well into the six figures. Losing candidates, meanwhile, can find themselves deeply in debt without showing anything for it.

It is perhaps unsurprising that many of those who are willing to take such a financial risk come from relatively affluent backgrounds. While the 2019 ‘Red Wall’ push brought more working-class Conservative MPs to parliament, 44% of Tories elected that year were still privately educated, alongside 38% of Liberal Democrats and 19 % of Labor MPs.

Former cabinet minister Jacqui Smith, who served on the MotherRED grants jury, said applicants are often embarrassed to admit they are struggling financially for fear of appearing unprofessional. “Most people would look at someone who is a candidate for Parliament and already see them as advantaged. You don’t want to say, “I’m dipping into my savings. Or: “I can’t afford to travel up to three times a week.”

Grant recipient Samantha Townsend, a mother of three from County Durham, says her interest in politics was sparked by cuts to family support services
Grant recipient Samantha Townsend, a mother of three from County Durham, says her interest in politics was sparked by cuts to family support services. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

This resonates with Samantha Townsend, a 36-year-old mother of three from County Durham and fellow grant recipient. Just passing the Labor candidate selection process could cost £1,000 and although she has three jobs – in community engagement for the co-op, for an education company and as a councilor – she doesn’t there’s no money lying around.

“There’s no wealth in my family, there’s no credit card funds – I’ve used my credit card to feed my family for the past 10 years. I live in a rented house. I was thinking, ‘How am I going to do this?’ »

Townsend’s two eldest children, now aged 10 and 8, both have autism and his interest in politics was sparked by cuts to family support services. She argues Westminster needs more women like her with experience of the welfare system and fewer MPs, saying the poor can face skyrocketing bills by learning to cook better or buying brands of value: “It fuels the distrust people have of politicians, when they see conservatives on TV saying ridiculous things about what it’s like to live in poverty.

It was frustration at the lack of diverse voices in government that led former Lib Dem special adviser Vanessa Pine to co-found the Activate Collective two years ago, raising funds for women activists of all stripes. parties seeking national or local elections, but focusing on low-income, ethnic minority and disabled women.

The 46 candidates he has backed so far needed everything from childcare to laptops and smart clothes, though the saddest story Pine has heard came from an adviser who spent two hours returning home from evening meetings to save the bus fare: “She was potentially putting herself in a dangerous position to come home late at night because that £2.30 bus fare was something that she couldn’t afford.

Perspectives like this, Pine said, would be invaluable in local or national politics. “You get better politics when you have people who know what they’re talking about. Things like changes to Universal Credit payments [scrapping the requirement to wait six weeks for a payment] would have happened much sooner if there had been someone in the room who had already had to wait for their benefits.

Sally Ashby from Chepstow
Sally Ashby of Chepstow says the grant will make the possibility of her running for parliament more feasible. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

But, like Creasy, she points out that money isn’t the only hurdle mothers face when trying to get elected. “I’ve heard of women candidates being asked, ‘What am I going to do if I get pregnant?’ “, she says. “Women are also often vying for much less winnable seats first and being asked to ‘prove themselves’ [before getting a safe seat].”

At Chepstow, Ashby admits she braces herself for questions about how she would juggle family responsibilities as a single mother. But winning the grant made her more confident to respond, she says: “I think it’s important that I’m true to myself and my situation, and that I recognize that having more people like me in parliament is a good thing. So many people are just disengaged from politics right now – the reaction is, ‘They’re all the same, I won’t vote for any of them.’

“There’s something about getting the message across that we’re not all the same; there are normal people who care enough to show up because it matters to them – and because they want those normal voices to be heard.

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