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

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Trade unions must adapt to the gig economy in order to survive

We can’t allow the story of UK trade unionism to just be about managing decline.

While the world around trade unions has rapidly changed, there is an impression trade unions have remained stuck in the past with antagonistic rhetoric, outdated governance structures and an inflexible approach. Yet trade unions remain as vital as ever in an insecure jobs market, and do have the capacity to protect workers and inspire support when they use positivity in place of hostility.

The future of the UK trade union movement has long been a matter for concern. Trade union membership has been stagnating for the last 30 years and structural changes in the UK economy have led to trade union density in the private sector dropping below 14 per cent. 

The most worrying aspect of this decline is that – despite work being increasingly less secure, growing wage inequality, and workers’ rights being slowly rolled back since 2010 – trade unions, or more precisely trade union membership, appears not to be a relevant choice for millions of workers.

Polling suggests that too many people who would be interested in being a member of an organisation that offered independent advice and protection at work are put off by the tone of voice and confrontational language they hear from union leaders, usually only during an industrial dispute or power struggle within the Labour party. If unions used to be angry, now they’re furious, and it is not helping.

Trade unions face serious challenges, but if we adapt, we can survive. The rise of self-employment, freelancing and the "gig economy" means more and more people are in need of the services and support that unions offer. But our benefits and services must be responsive to the needs of workers today and be flexible enough for change when it comes. 

We do not talk openly enough about our successes. We shouldn’t be embarrassed when we make something happen whilst working in partnership with decent employers. Nor should we shy away from championing successes achieved through industrial strength, but we need to be more sensitive to how we frame this to a wider audience.

But tweaks to our messaging and services are not enough on their own. We also need structural change in our trade union movement to ensure our long-term success.

Firstly, we need to recognise the severity of the situation that we are in and face up to the facts of declining membership, relevance and authority. There needs to be an acceptance that it is the responsibility of the trade union movement to understand the problems we face and to address them – not to blame others such as the press, politicians or employers.
 
Secondly, we need to build a consensus across the trade union movement on a recovery strategy. Given the diverse interests of our many sister organisations, that is easier to say than to deliver on. Strengthening the governance of trade unions should be one priority, seeking to develop a tripartite social framework with employers and government should be another.
 
Thirdly, we need to ensure the continuing and increasing relevance of trade unions to the world of work. We must recognise that we are struggling to connect beyond our membership and in many cases even beyond our activist base.

Too often change is done to trade unions, rather than by them. The Trade Union Act is the most recent example of a Conservative government taking action to reduce trade union influence. It won’t be long before they return to this pursuit. So rather than waiting to respond, why don’t we take the initiative?

It shouldn't be beyond the collective wit of trade unions to seek to develop and modernise our own structures, develop ideas that would underpin our future independence and seek out best practice across the movement in the delivery of services and benefits.
 
These are undoubtedly big challenges for the trade union movement. I know we want to help build a fairer, more equitable society with decent jobs, housing and education. Wanting to do these things isn’t enough, we need to be in a position to make change happen.

John Park is assistant general secretary of the trade union Community.