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5 June 2018

“It’s not old men doing the job anymore”: meet the single parent MPs transforming Westminster

Although there are no official figures, it is thought that the 2017 intake of MPs had the highest ever number of single parents.

By Marie Le Conte

Tonia Antoniazzi is a single mother, and has been a member of the Labour party for four years.

“The reason why I got into politics is because I was on my own, and I was so incandescent that as soon as the Tory coalition came in, it was overnight that we had bigger pension contributions, had to work longer…”, she said.

“When you go from having a dual income to a single one and your mortgage rate is high, and you’re paying off debt… all these things just made me very cross, and there’s nothing like a 40-year-old cross woman, is there? We’re not to be messed with, and that’s why I got involved.”

She stood in the Welsh National Assembly in 2016 and lost, then stood in the general election in 2017 and won. She has been the Labour MP for Gower for just over a year, but the decision to go for a seat wasn’t an easy one.

“It was the most marginal seat in the whole United Kingdom held by a Tory and therefore it was quite a target seat,” she recalls.

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“The conversation I had with my mother at the time was ‘shall I go for this?’ and then she said ‘well, I think you’re mad, but I think you need to’ and I said ‘I don’t think I can do this without you’ and she said “I will be there to stand by you whatever happens.’

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“She facilitates the majority of the childcare for my 13-year-old now, which means I can be here to do this job.”

Antoniazzi doesn’t think she would have been able to get involved in politics if she hadn’t been close to her family and able to rely on them, and she isn’t the only one.

Rosie Duffield is a single mother of two. One of the big surprises of election night last year was the moment when she became the first ever Labour MP to win Canterbury.

She has also had to rely on her relatives to help her with money and childcare, but still struggled before she got into parliament.

“It’s an extra layer above your normal budget,” she says. “When you’re a single mum and you’re on tax credits, every single penny is allocated, there’s no fallback, no mistakes, no savings whatsoever, so if your kids’ shoes break and they want outdoor football gear, then you have to go to your parents. You don’t want your children to know that you’re in debt and that you’ve got no money. You’ve already imposed separation on them, you don’t want to make it worse.

“I was lucky enough to have my parents to go to, but as my tax credits got frozen, and my pay was capped for eight years as a teaching assistant, the cost of living didn’t stop. […] I’m just starting to be able to pay off my debt because I’d never had a decent salary. I’m going to be paying it off for a long time.”

Still, both Duffield and Antoniazzi acknowledged that compared to other single parents, they have been fortunate so far. Though 68 per cent of single parents are now in work, according to research published earlier this year by charity Gingerbread, 47 per cent of children growing up in single parent families live in relative poverty – around twice the amount of children growing up in couple families.

This is why the two MPs were proud to get elected to parliament, and not to be the only ones in that situation: though there are no official figures, it is thought that the 2017 intake of MPs had the highest ever number of single parents.

They have also started organising: in March, six MPs from the Labour party, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and SNP got together to launch the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Single Parent Families.

“We are very, very fortunate”, says Duffield. “We’re making policy on [the lives of single parents], we’re influencing policy on it because we’ve lived it. It’s not old men doing the job anymore.”

“And that is brilliant!”, interjects Antoniazzi. “We are more representative of society and of our constituents.”

She is, of course, right. According to Gingerbread, there are around two million single parents in the UK, which is nearly a quarter of families with dependent children. They’re also far from evenly spread across the country, and the party political divide is stark.

Of the 20 constituencies with the lowest percentage of single parents – between 10 per cent and 16 per cent of all families with children – 14 are held by the Conservative party. Of the 20 with the most single parents – between 44 per cent and 51 per cent – 18 are Labour.

In any case, those single parents who made it to parliament last year actually have Theresa May to thank for it: if there hadn’t been a snap election, both MPs reckoned that they probably wouldn’t have run.

“I think it was because it was a snap election, that’s why we made those decisions really quickly and so far I’m not regretting it,” says Antoniazzi before turning to Duffield and asking her if she’d have been in a financial position to campaign for two or three years instead of a few weeks.

“Absolutely not” is the unsurprising response.

They are here now, though, and things aren’t necessarily easy: from the impossibly long hours to the fact that they must often stay down in London for longer than expected, life as an MP and a single parent feels unnecessarily stressful.

While they both knew what they were getting into, more measures could be put in place to help parliamentarians who have children, especially younger ones, as both MPs point out that they felt lucky their children were all in their teenage years.

“I think votes into the middle of the night don’t help,” Duffield says. “We’ve got a few couples here who share the childcare and bring their children in at night because the creche finishes at a certain time.

“They have to bring them into the voting lobby. Surely, there must be a different way of doing it? Electronic voting, maybe. We could also be looking at proxy voting.”

In any case, both Antoniazzi and Duffield seem happy to have been elected and do not have any regrets, even looking at the sacrifices they had to make to get where they are.

“My child was very proud of me, and I’m proud of him for being able to cope with it” says the former. “Even if I stay on for one term, he’ll be 18 by the time I’m done and that’ll have had a massive impact on his life.”

Duffield agrees: “We’re showing [our sons] that women can do this and be strong but we’re still there for them, just not exactly in the same way that we were there for them before.

“I was a rubbish cook anyway”, she laughs. “I’d heat something up then run to a Labour meeting most nights, so at least they were used to that.”