Margaret Thatcher, just after being elected Tory leader in 1975, chose to highlight her housewife credentials. -/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

Speaking as a mother, I think the idea that mothers make better politicians is ridiculous

There is a pervasive sense that women politicians are more “real” and “normal” if they have children – a standard that is never applied to men.

Do mums make better politicians? Well, #notallmums, obviously. I for one would be bloody awful. But do mums in general share an insight into everyday human realities that is sorely lacking amongst our current political elite?

That is what has been suggested by Labour MP Helen Goodman. Writing in the Huffington Post, she expresses her support for Yvette Cooper’s campaign to be Labour leader on the basis that “as a working mum, she understands the pressures on modern family life.” The necessary implication of this is that those who are not working mums must be lacking in this self-same understanding.

Certainly this is how supporters of Liz Kendall’s rival leadership campaign have taken it (Kendall does not have children). Kendall’s campaign manager, Toby Perkins, has told the BBC that the very idea that one ought to back the candidate who is a mother “suggests a paucity of intellectual argument, which the Labour party should really have moved beyond”. It is notable that male leadership candidates seem considerably less riled by the whole affair. This might lead one to ask whether all of this is really about what mothers have to offer, or more about what we expect a female political candidate to be.

To take the first option, as a mother – one who hates starting any sentence with the phrase “as a mother” – I find it hard not to get irritated by attempts to justify the usefulness and multi-applicability of maternal experience. It always feels incredibly patronising. Yes, I know I’m useful – isn’t it obvious? And no, I wasn’t better or worse at my job before my children came along (just less tired). Nonetheless, it is true that the raising of the next generation should be – and is not always – a major political concern. And isn’t it the case that mothers have insights and experiences of major political relevance? Almost everyone has a mother – could it not be argued that we are the starting point, the hub, the central point of interaction with institutions such as the family, the education system, the social care network and more? If there is a contemporary crisis regarding our ability to care for one another from cradle to grave, perhaps it would be better if mums were in charge.

In Maternal Thinking the philosopher Sara Ruddick argues that “out of maternal practices distinctive ways of conceptualizing, ordering, and valuing arise.” She articulates a mode of thought which originates in the act of caring for children and is based on three principles: the preservation of life, the fostering of growth and the achievement of acceptability within a broader community. Each principle contains within it the risk of degeneration (the prioritisation of acceptability, in particular, can translate into selfish conservatism), hence mothers must access a particular level of self-awareness in order to overcome. But overall Ruddick seeks to define a way of thinking and acting which need not be specific to mothers – nor even exemplified by all mothers – but which can have broader political applications (Ruddick herself, writing during the Cold War, is particularly focussed on the peace movement).

I find all of this this fascinating. Certainly I believe that we desperately need to embed a politics of care within our current social and economic structures (recent works such as Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? also support this view – and Marçal is not, as far as I am aware, a mother). I do wonder whether this is a maternal position so much as a feminist political position, one which many mothers, especially those who are very wealthy, need not necessarily share. The priorities that Goodman articulates in her piece strike me not as left-wing ones as such (many left-wing men seem willing to put unpaid ’women’s’ work on the back burner), nor as female ones (contrary to popular belief, females are a pretty diverse bunch). What holds them together is a particular ethics, one which we – as vulnerable, potentially dependent creatures – should ideally all share. Without question this ethics is conncected to what most mothers do, but it cannot be wholly defined by it.

Right now, if female politicians do get a boost from motherhood, I think it comes less from being seen as in tune with particular issues and more from current prejudices regarding what constitutes a “normal” woman. For instance, it’s notable that Goodman starts her Huffington Post piece by claiming that “it can sometimes seem like politicians are not ‘real’ people. But, believe me, we are”:

Much more important to me than being an MP and shadow minister is that I am a mum. I have two children and although they are both grown-up (supposedly), once a mum, always a mum. I remember the difficulty of having to work and arrange childcare. Getting them up and ready for school, nagging them about their homework, which strangely seems to get harder as they get older, then battling to get them to bed at a sensible time - a task.

While much of this is very familiar to me, I wouldn’t say that it makes me more “real” than I was before I had children. Moreover, I don’t see many male politicians seeking to demonstrate their “realness” by listing all of the mundane things they have to do in order to get the little sods ready for the day. While this is probably because their wives or nannies are doing it anyhow, I think it says something about how much more professional women are expected to expose of themselves in order to prove that they are not ‘fake.’

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had to deal not only with Tony Abbott describing her government as “one which lacks experience in raising children”, but with conservative senator Bill Heffernan calling her “deliberately barren”. There are online debates as to why the “unmaternal” Hillary Clinton only had one child and as to whether her career was more important to her than motherhood. Perhaps our ideal female politician would be like Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen, not wholly defined by motherhood by definitely compromised by its demands. Oh, but wait, that would make her less focussed than a male counterpart. I guess we then find ourselves stuck with the Margaret Thatcher model, someone who can dutifully pop out two children, one boy, one girl (perfect! normal!), while making sure no broader principles of nurturance ever infiltrate the corridors of power.

Within the “politics” that governs my own family, I’m pretty sure I benefited from a “real woman” boost when I became a mum (I even once heard my mother tell someone “yes, she’s got a PhD, but she has children now, so she’s normal” - um, thanks, I think). Sadly, I don’t think my book learning-defying ovaries will be enough to make me electable (the papers would eventually find out that I’d snogged that bloke who thinks he’s the reincarnation of King Arthur Pendragon, so I might as well own up to that now). Even so, if I could be a politician, I would hope that what motherhood has brought out in me is not so much “normality” as a greater awareness of the importance of unglamorous, boring old care.

What this current kerfuffle is edging towards – but sadly not yet expressing – is the need for us to look after one another. In the age of individualism, it is hard to find any leaders – mothers or not – who are prepared to defend this principle in absolute terms. Dependency is shameful, self-sufficiency is all. What makes most mothers “special” (if one can call it that) is that they necessarily have to bail out on this fetishisation of self-interest, at least part of the time. Many other people do this, too, but nowhere near enough, and many mothers fail to extend these principles beyond the confines of their own family. We do not need mothers to lead us. We just need people who see that carework and nurturance are the responsibility of all.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Getty
Show Hide image

"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496