The Lib Dem deputy leader’s decision to attend a Commons discussion with her baby son wasn’t just symbolically important.
On Thursday (14 September), Jo Swinson attended a debate in the House of Commons with her 11-week-old son Gabriel strapped to her chest. The Liberal Democrat deputy leader didn’t have her baby with her at the start of the discussion: at that point, he was being cared for by one of her colleagues. But after Swinson nipped out to give Gabriel a feed, she decided to bring him into the chamber with her.
The MP for East Dunbartonshire later explained that Gabriel had fallen asleep immediately after being fed, which presented her with a dilemma. Did she pass him back to a colleague and risk waking him, or head back into the debate with him snoozing in a baby carrier?
“The options were: wake him up and hand him to somebody else for 20 minutes, or go in and sit down [and] do no harm,” Swinson told BBC Scotland. She added: “He stayed asleep for most of it.”
To hear Swinson tell it, taking Gabriel into the chamber was no big deal. It was simply the most logical course of action when compared to the – slightly horrifying – alternative of disturbing a tiny baby. And really, it shouldn’t be a big deal. In 2018, it would be nice if ‘female politician takes dependent child into workplace’ wasn’t a headline-making story.
But – to paraphrase Ron Burgundy – it was kind of a big deal. As a result of her low-key decision, Swinson made history: she will now forever be the first MP in British history to appear at a Commons debate with a baby in tow.
Gabriel’s appearance in the chamber was also significant because of the topic his mother was discussing. Swinson and the other MPs in attendance on Thursday weren’t deliberating over taxes, the environment or foreign policy; they were debating proxy voting, an issue that couldn’t be more relevant to politicians who are parents, expecting a child or who think they may one day want to have a baby.
Proxy voting is particularly important to Swinson, who was thoroughly and personally screwed over this summer by the government’s failure to introduce the system. To recap: proxy voting would allow MPs to ask a colleague from their own party to vote on their behalf if they couldn’t make it to parliament due to personal reasons. Those reasons may include being on maternity or paternity leave, having caring responsibilities, being ill or having recently experienced a bereavement – experiences that all human beings go through at some point.
The alternative to proxy voting is ‘pairing’, the current informal system under which MPs who can’t attend a vote are matched with an MP from an opposing party. In theory, the ‘paired’ MP agrees to sit out any votes that the first MP can’t take part in – meaning that an MP’s absence makes no difference to whether a bill is approved or overturned.
But this system only works if both sides play fair, and that doesn’t always happen. Swinson discovered this in July, when she couldn’t take part in a crunch vote on the government’s Brexit plans because she’d recently given birth. She was promised that Tory MP Brandon Lewis would abstain from the vote – but he didn’t. The Conservatives claimed this was an innocent mistake, but Swinson described it as a “calculated, deliberate breaking of trust”.
Proxy voting wouldn’t only benefit women, and it has support from male and female MPs from both sides of the political spectrum. But it is nevertheless a feminist issue. Women MPs are significantly more likely to be unable to attend a vote if they’re expecting a child or have recently given birth, and may be more likely to have caring commitments outside Westminster than some of their male colleagues.
As a result, women are potentially more likely to lose out – like Swinson did – if proxy voting is not introduced. The Lib Dem MP’s central role in the pairing controversy made the image of her sitting on the green benches, Gabriel’s downy head nestled against her chest, even more poignant. It’s a picture that sends a clear, unmistakeable message: proxy voting really, really matters to women politicians.
Disappointingly, Andrea Leadsom – the leader of the House of Commons – declined to set a date for the introduction of proxy voting after Thursday’s debate, despite indicating that she approved of the system. But Swinson is clear that she’s not going to let the issue drop.
Speaking after the debate, she said she hoped her decision to take Gabriel into the chamber would send “a message that it really needs to be possible for parents to be able to combine their responsibilities for their children with their working lives, and all too often that is made too difficult.” We couldn’t agree more.
Main image: Getty Images