Going through the motions? Far from it

Strange question to ask at a Lib Dem conference, but do votes count?

I am not talking about AV or STV or FPTP, but about those votes at the conference on policy motions. As the leadership steels itself for votes and possible defeat on free schools and the less controversial issues of Trident and gay marriage, will any of these votes affect the part of the party in government?

On canvassing opinion, a surprising response – a special adviser thought "yes", the votes were important, in contrast to a typical regular rebel who thought "no", it would make no difference. But what will it mean if tomorrow conference votes for the Lib Dems to discourage free schools from opening? My overwhelming and pragmatic view is, why bother? This is never going happen. Setting up a school is a huge undertaking and if there were betting odds on how many will actually happen by 2015, the numbers would be too small to worry about.

The second is that this flexing of muscle will in the end be a strength, not a weakness. Take the example of the "triple-lock" process at the time of the coalition negotiations. I confess that I was critical of it, but proved wrong. The democratic process that tied in the negotiating team to the Federal Executive, Parliamentary Party and ultimately the party as a whole gave them greater power to negotiate, unlike the other parties.

So Roy Jenkins was wrong when he predicted that something like this would "twuss up our leader like a chicken" (please read in appropriate Jenkins style). Instead, it gave Clegg a stronger policy platform.

So Nick Clegg said in his Q&A today that he would make no attempt to gag internal debate; instead, he sees it as part of the democratic process for building a future policy platform. These were not warm words for the party. He is ready for those votes and will not be attempting to change the debate.

I think most conference delegates get that. What the media, Conservative backbenchers and the wider public make of it is another matter.

Olly Grender is a political consultant. She was director of communications for the Liberal Democrats between 1990 and 1995.

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“I felt very lonely”: addressing the untold story of isolation among young mothers

With one in five young mothers lonely “all the time”, it’s time for employers and services to step up.

“Despite having my child with me all the time, I felt very lonely,” says Laura Davies. A member of an advisory panel for the Young Women’s Trust, she had her son age 20. Now, with a new report suggesting that one in five young mums “feels lonely all the time”, she’s sharing her story.

Polling commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust has highlighted the isolation that young motherhood can bring. Of course, getting out and about the same as you did before is never easy once there’s a young child in the picture. For young mothers, however, the situation can be particularly difficult.

According to the report, over a quarter of young mothers leave the house just once a week or less, with some leaving just once a month.

Aside from all the usual challenges – like wrestling a colicky infant into their jacket, or pumping milk for the trip with one hand while making sure no-one is crawling into anything dangerous with the other – young mothers are more likely to suffer from a lack of support network, or to lack the confidence to approach mother-baby groups and other organisations designed to help. In fact, some 68 per cent of young mothers said they had felt unwelcome in a parent and toddler group.

Davies paints what research suggests is a common picture.

“Motherhood had alienated me from my past. While all my friends were off forging a future for themselves, I was under a mountain of baby clothes trying to navigate my new life. Our schedules were different and it became hard to find the time.”

“No one ever tells you that when you have a child you will feel an overwhelming sense of love that you cannot describe, but also an overwhelming sense of loneliness when you realise that your life won’t be the same again.

More than half of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed said that they felt lonelier since becoming a mother, with more than two-thirds saying they had fewer friends than before. Yet making new friends can be hard, too, especially given the judgement young mothers can face. In fact, 73 per cent of young mothers polled said they’d experienced rudeness or unpleasant behaviour when out with their children in public.

As Davies puts it, “Trying to find mum friends when your self-confidence is at rock bottom is daunting. I found it easier to reach out for support online than meet people face to face. Knowing they couldn’t judge me on my age gave me comfort.”

While online support can help, however, loneliness can still become a problem without friends to visit or a workplace to go to. Many young mothers said they would be pleased to go back to work – and would prefer to earn money rather than rely on benefits. After all, typing some invoices, or getting back on the tills, doesn’t just mean a paycheck – it’s also a change to speak to someone old enough to understand the words “type”, “invoice” and “till”.

As Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton explains, “More support is needed for young mothers who want to work. This could include mentoring to help ease women’s move back into education or employment.”

But mothers going back to work don’t only have to grapple with childcare arrangements, time management and their own self-confidence – they also have to negotiate with employers. Although the 2003 Employment Act introduced the right for parents of young children to apply to work flexibly, there is no obligation for their employer to agree. (Even though 83 per cent of women surveyed by the Young Women’s Trust said flexible hours would help them find secure work, 26 per cent said they had had a request turned down.)

Dr Easton concludes: “The report recommends access to affordable childcare, better support for young women at job centres and advertising jobs on a flexible, part-time or job share basis by default.”

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland