In 2019, Kizzy Gardiner made history when she was hired to stand in for MP Stella Creasy while she was on maternity leave. Her time in office is now over – and Gardiner is reflecting on what the experience taught her.
Last November, Kizzy Gardiner was appointed to cover for Labour MP Stella Creasy while she was on maternity leave. In any other industry, a maternity cover contract wouldn’t be considered newsworthy. But it was a radical act in the archaic world of British politics, where no MP had ever had maternity cover before.
Unbelievably, there is still no formal parental leave scheme in place for MPs, and no system to ensure their constituency duties are taken care of while they are giving birth or looking after a new baby. As a result, Creasy had to fight Ipsa – the body that regulates MPs’ pay – to be allowed to hire a locum MP to handle her constituency work in Walthamstow, north-east London, while she was away.
The process sounds both exhausting and enraging. “One of the questions on the form [Creasy] had to fill out was: what did you do to try and avoid this situation?” says Gardiner. The form was designed for situations like arranging cover for a constituency office manager who’s off sick, she explains. “That’s what you have to fill out if you’re having a baby. It’s offensive.”
But eventually, Creasy was victorious, and Gardiner was appointed as a locum MP to take care of Creasy’s community-based work. (Another Labour MP voted on Creasy’s behalf in the Commons, thanks to a proxy voting system introduced on a trial basis last year.) “It’s been a wild ride, I can tell you,” says Gardiner, who previously worked in the charity sector and had no professional political experience.
“When I signed up for the job, I didn’t know we were going to have a general election, then the Labour leadership election, then a global pandemic. I could do with a nice long lie down in a dark room. But it’s been amazing.”
Creasy returned to parliament at the start of June, meaning that Gardiner’s time as a stand-in MP is now over. Does she think it was a success? “I’ve always thought I’d judge that based on whether we convinced anybody else that [maternity cover for MPs] is something that should be done,” she says. “At the moment, we’ve not managed to.” Ipsa currently says the responsibility for implementing official maternity cover for MPs lies with the Commons, and the issue doesn’t seem to be a priority for other MPs right now.
It’s frustrating and disappointing that the next MP who wants to take anything like conventional maternity leave will have to go through the same process as Creasy. But Gardiner plans to keep lobbying for maternity rights. The goal, she says, is a future where maternity cover for MPs is “not just a weird anomaly”.
Below, Gardiner shares the key lessons she learned from being a maternity cover MP.
Sharing your ambitions can help push you forward
“Just before this role came up, I was chatting with my former boss and saying: ‘There’s so much going on in the world right now, and I feel I’m not doing enough to make a difference. I think I need to take some responsibility and step into a role that enables me to do something bigger.’ So when this job came along, I’d almost talked myself into having to apply. It was like, OK, I said all that stuff in a room full of people – I should throw my hat into the ring.”
If you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, seek external validation
“I can’t tell you how much I didn’t think I would get the job. I heard about it via a breaking news notification, so it was like: I’m not going to get a job that’s breaking news, don’t be ridiculous! I assumed someone with more political experience would be a shoo-in. I had imposter syndrome.
“What I’ve learned is that you have to back yourself. I’ve talked myself out of jobs in the past; I’ve tried to convince people not to give them to me; I’ve negotiated myself a lower salary. I’ve done all sorts of astonishingly bad things. But if you think you might be all right at something, try to get some external validation. Other people will almost always think better of you than you think of yourself.
“For me, that moment was when a friend who lives in Walthamstow sent me the job ad and asked if I’d considered applying. Realising that someone else thought I should go for it – someone who I’d actually be representing if I got the role – was really meaningful.”
Institutions are slow to change – but that doesn’t mean you should give up
“I knew that we weren’t going to normalise maternity leave for MPs all at once. But I’m surprised by how little traction we’ve made. This was a historic moment, but Ipsa hasn’t been interested in making it easier for all MPs to take parental leave. Neither has anyone else wanted to get involved, from an institutional point of view. I assumed the Labour Party might be interested – apparently, not so much.
“People are so frightened of and resistant to change, particularly within institutions. Wandering around the Houses of Parliament, there are portraits everywhere, and the vast majority of them are of old white men. Until relatively recently, no one has had to think about maternity leave for MPs.
“More than anything, it saddens me. I think it’s a real block on democracy and representation, and I get frustrated because I’m like: surely people want parliament to be more representative? I know not everyone does, but they should. I swing from ‘I can’t believe it’s gotten to this stage and still nobody wants to talk about it’, to: ‘Well, that’s why Stella had to fight so hard to get maternity leave, and why we have to keep fighting.’”
MPs work incredibly hard
“This job has given me an appreciation for hard work in a way I didn’t have before. My admiration for MPs – not all of them, but a lot of them – and the work they do in their communities has shot through the roof. I felt personally responsible for the constituents. You hear their stories and you want to make sure they’re OK. My daughter was ill over Christmas, and I was working at 3am from a hospital bed in Great Ormond Street. It’s full on.
“I don’t know what that means for our representative politics. Do you have to elect people who are going to push themselves that hard all the time? Maybe you do. Maybe that’s what politicians are. I’d like to think it doesn’t need to be that way, but if you are somebody who gets very involved and wants to help people, it’s hard to switch off.”
If there’s a cause you believe in, it’s worth fighting for
“Representing constituents has taught me about the importance of politics in people’s everyday lives. The range of fights we took on on behalf of constituents was incredible.
“If there’s a cause you really believe in, it’s worth fighting for it, and politics can be a really good tool for that. Yes, it can be frustrating when people don’t agree, don’t get back to you or fundamentally don’t care. But politics and local people do have the power to change things.”
There is a lot of goodness in the world
“I had no idea how many people there are out there making a difference. Which seems silly: I come from the charity sector, I should know that. But in this role, I got to meet a lot of people who were just beavering away in the background to improve their community. It was incredible to see how many people are willing to do that, and it taught me how much good there is in the world.
“There’s a lot of rubbish out there. But there are also so many people doing amazing things to make the world a better place.”
Images: Getty; courtesy of Kizzy Gardiner