Jo Swinson was promised a Tory MP would abstain from a key vote while she cared for her baby. He didn’t – and she’s angry.
There are many reasons why a woman wouldn’t want to be an MP. There’s the relentless online abuse, for one. There’s the fact that sexual harassment remains a significant problem in Westminster – and even if you’re not harassed, you still have to deal with dinosaurs like Christopher Chope. Troublingly, according to recent research by Woman’s Hour, most women would never consider pursuing a role in public life, such as standing as an MP.
But another major factor deterring women from entering politics is the fact that life in Westminster is still distinctly incompatible with motherhood. For the latest example of this, we have only to look at the story of Jo Swinson, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, who has accused the government of “cheating” her out of a key Brexit vote while she was on maternity leave.
Swinson gave birth to her son Gabriel at the end of last month, and is currently on maternity leave from her parliamentary duties. (Unbelievably, MPs are not currently entitled to any formal maternity or paternity leave, and have to come to informal arrangements with their party instead, as Swinson has done.)
Ahead of a key Commons vote on the government’s Brexit customs legislation, Swinson was promised she would be ‘paired’ with Conservative chairman Brandon Lewis, who – she was assured – also wouldn’t vote on the government’s trade plans.
Except, um, he did. Twice.
In theory, the practice of ‘pairing’ means that if an MP can’t attend a key vote – if, say, she is on maternity leave – an MP from another party will also refrain from voting. This should mean that their non-votes cancel each other out, and an MP’s absence makes no difference to whether a bill or amendment is approved or overturned.
On Tuesday (17 July), however, Swinson was forced to find out from a journalist that Lewis had broken their arrangement and taken part in the critical Brexit votes anyway. Partly as a result of this, the government successfully overturned a pro-EU amendment to the Brexit customs bill.
This will undoubtedly have been devastating and infuriating for Swinson. The pro-Remain MP was present for key votes until she was 41 weeks pregnant; she almost certainly would have voted on the Brexit customs bill if she’d known her ‘pair’ was going to break his promise to her.
The Conservatives have insisted that they didn’t intend to cheat Swinson out of a vote, with the government’s chief whip Julian Smith saying that Lewis had been “asked to vote in error”. But that explanation isn’t flying with Swinson. On Twitter, she pointed out that if Lewis really did vote in error, he somehow only managed to vote in error on two key Brexit issues, and didn’t take part in less pivotal votes earlier on in the day.
“Don’t try any nonsense about a mistake – this is calculated, deliberate breaking of trust by government whips… to win at all costs,” she wrote. “Brandon abstained in afternoon divisions, but voted in the two crunch votes after 6pm. There’s a word for it – cheating.”
Now, a group of MPs – including Swinson – are putting fresh pressure on the government to introduce new rules that would allow MPs to vote by proxy after they’ve had a baby or adopted a child.
This would mean that they could ask a colleague from their own party to cast votes on their behalf while they’re away on maternity or paternity leave, rather than having to trust that a political opponent will abstain from voting. As well as applying to MPs on parental leave, proxy voting would also allow MPs who are sick or dying, recently bereaved, or who have caring responsibilities to nominate a colleague to vote in their place.
In other words, it’s a humane system that doesn’t work on the assumption that all MPs are men with no responsibilities beyond hanging out in the Commons bar.
It’s difficult to overstate just how important proxy voting is for women in politics. There are several pregnant MPs and new mothers in the Commons at the moment, including Labour’s Cat Smith and Laura Pidcock, and they all deserve better than how Swinson has been treated.
Not only that, but the idea has widespread cross-party support from both male and female MPs. Earlier this month, SNP MP David Linden held up a scan of his unborn daughter in the Commons to call for MPs to be allowed to vote by proxy. And in a recent joint op-ed in parliamentary magazine The House, Conservative Maria Miller, the SNP’s Hannah Bardell and Labour’s Harriet Harman – who has also been pushing for a formal parental leave system for MPs – called on the Prime Minister to introduce proxy voting as soon as possible.
“This wasn’t an issue in decades gone by when there were few women sitting in the House of Commons. Now there are more women on both sides of the House the informal arrangements of the past are no longer appropriate and a more certain and predictable system needs to be sorted out,” they wrote.
The fact that Swinson has been so thoroughly let down by the current system is proof of that. It’s time to bring politics into the 21st century – and make sure MPs on maternity leave are never let down in this way again.
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