Thursday, 10 November 2011

the dangers of 'don't ask, don't tell'

IT's her greatest strength, but perhaps her greatest weakness. What makes the Conservative MP Louise Mensch so unusual is her apparent belief that the rules of politics somehow don't apply to her.
She always seemed fiercely ambitious, yet almost her first act as a new backbencher was to blow promotion by criticising her own side's half-baked proposals for rape law reform. When a tabloid dug up tales of decades-old drugtaking, she didn't claim apologetically never to have inhaled: she merrily confessed to all that she was accused of and probably more.
And yesterday, she sailed out of a critical Commons hearing into tabloid phone hacking early, blithely announcing to the TV cameras that she was off to get the kids from school. Cue outrage, even in some unpredictable quarters. But why?
It's not so much that she scarpered instead of waiting until the bitter end: over years of covering select committees, I saw many MPs trot out their questions, as she diligently did, and then leave (although rarely on such a high profile occasion). It's that she was so brazen about it. She could have slipped out muttering obliquely about a private matter: or hinted at some dire childcare emergency - a nanny off sick, husband away. That's what the rules for working mothers say: never let on how hard it is, and if you must, then stress it's a rare one-off.
But instead Mensch went out of her way to show she actively chose to go, tweeting afterwards that Thursday is one of her days to have her three children (she's divorced, and presumably shares access with her ex-husband) and so she usually works then from her Northamptonshire constituency, where the children are at school. It seems she simply decided that having said she would always be there on Thursdays, she would be there on Thursdays come what may: that the commitment to the children, at least on that day, trumped everything else (presumably on other days, the opposite applies).
Again, plenty of MPs of both sexes seem to be mysteriously unavailable at Westminster any time after Thursday lunchtime: doubtless some are on the school run too. But the unspoken rule is don't ask, don't tell. Keep the fact that that you really want to see your children, after being away for three nights, as your dirty little secret - because if you don't, we would have to face up to the emotional cost of the hours we expect you to keep. (Or indeed, to our anxiety over having made different choices ourselves).
It's the same in countless ordinary offices, where parents are quietly advised never to put anything down on paper about leaving early: just fabricate a client meeting every now and then and slip off early, like everyone else. It works. But it's deeply dishonest, perpetuating the myth that it's fine to work a 70 hour week or choose (as MPs do) between living several hundred miles from their children or dragging them up and down the motorway every weekend. And it's an excuse for nothing to change.
Because if it's not about Mensch blowing the gaff, then what? Let's not pretend another 45 minutes of her silent presence at the hearing would have broken James Murdoch: had she quietly fixed a playdate for the kids and stayed on, it would have been pure presenteeism. Let's not even pretend it's about her being a 'part time MP': it's long been acceptable for backbenchers (often men) to have a second job outside the Commons, which hardly seems any different. Certainly, don't pretend it's about being out of touch with ordinary working parents: where better than the school gates to see what life is like for them?
Some find Mensch herself annoying, of course: I do see that talk of facelifts and dressing nicely for your husband can grate, while others simply don't like Tories, or her apparent hunger for publicity. But you can't believe in parents' (and childrens') right to a family life, and in the benefits to both sides of flexibility, and in judging people by results not by time spent chained to a desk, unless you believe in it even for annoying people.
Mensch will get brickbats for this in the papers and vitriolic emails from constituents: so be it. But perhaps her children will remember that she was always there on a Thursday long after we've all forgotten. She's made the choice, and while it's not everybody's choice, that deserves respect.


  1. Interesting perspective. I am trying to work out how I feel, as my initial reaction was to think that she should have arranged childcare, for this particular occasion.

    It really depends though, on whether this was in keeping with her normal behaviour. If she is consequent and always puts her children first then I would applaud her for doing so.

    Otherwise, it does look a lot like grandstanding, even though it pains my feminist heart to even think this.

  2. I can't recall Mensch ever discussing facelifts. I can recall her refusing to be drawn on the subject by incessant reporters. I can appreciate people having facelift-fatigue, but I couldn't lay the blame at her door.

  3. Brazenness is good. Looking after the kids shouldn't raise an eyebrow, and I look forward to the day when a woman or a man can do this, and we don't even consider it might be grandstanding.

  4. Did she give up a pro-rata proportion of her salary?

    Has she take this time off under the provisions for parental leave?

    The main reason why parents (and particularly women) are encouraged to be "creative" when the want/need to spend time with their children is because it ensures they don't lose pay.

    As a former Civil Servant and a single mother I wasn't permitted to work flexibly under statutory provisions/rights and so I left to work in a way that suited my need and desire to spend more time with my child and fulfil my commitment to him.

    I'm astounded that an MP thinks it OK to flounce off mid-session to be with her children - do a different job or sort out appropriate childcare Ms Mensch or do as everyone else has to and take unpaid parental leave.

    Anything less is dishonest and makes a mockery of the majority of hard working women who don't have the privileges and profile of Mensch. She is doing a great disservice to working women.

    And I take issue with her right to put her children first - she's an MP. She has taken it upon herself to take part in the governance of this country. I applaud her for that. But the consequence of such a decision is that her "job" must come first. If it is inconvenient to fulfil her commitment she should get another job.

    I dare say that her sitting in silence in committee would not have broken James Murdoch but with respect that's not really the point. We have a process and system of accountability in the UK of which the select committee enquiry is an important part. Mensch's decision to waltz out of that because she puts her children first suggests she holds that process, essentially the rule of law, in contempt.

    That's not good enough.

  5. So this is what a well written blog looks like. A really good take on this issue and Louise Mensch more generally.

    There probably is a bit of grandstanding in her actions, but I also think that she is uncompromising about her right to be a parent and a politician.

    It could be that Parliament would far less chauvanistic if more people were as brazen about the choices they have to make inorder to be there for their children

  6. aLifelessvanilla

    No. It's not acceptable for looking after children or bringing them up to be a 'purely in your spare time' hobby. Things need to change at work, whether it be the commons or local council office. Wanting to do the best for your children is not making a mockery of other hardworking people.

    We all have to be able to respect eachother choices or we will get nowhere in this life. Besides, who says that people who 'get off early' to mess about with their kids don't do a full days' work before they leave?!

  7. I'm not sure. I want to agree with you, but I fear that doing what she did - the way she did it - does nothing for the credibility of working mothers. This wasn't a late-night sitting, it was a select committee meeting in the middle of the day. I know what you mean that her presence til the end of the meeting would have made very little difference to the outcome, but it simply gives ammunition to people who think that women can't give their full attention to important matters. Depressing, whichever way you look at it.

  8. Great blog Gaby and to be honest I am not sure how I feel about Louise Mensch's actions. Before having children, I used to have a fairly decent career which is now pretty much in decline. I have worked from home part-time over the last few years and never actually tackled going back to the work place and juggling childcare so I don't have experience of this. I can see strong arguments on both sides. Very thought provoking indeed. First time I have read your blog having seen it featured in the Mumsnet blogging news - brilliantly written and hugely engaging.

  9. I'm rather jealous of anyone, Louise Mensch included, who can slip away from the office in the afternoon. I work on live programmes so no early doors - and it wouldn't always be an afternoon, either. Not much point slipping off home at 2 in the morning. And in my experience, it's a lot more difficult for a man to assert his rights to look after his children. If you think a woman's  reputation suffers when she puts her kids or family first, you should try being a 'hands-on father'. I once looked after my 2 ill kids and ill wife for 3 days non-stop - not claiming any Brownie points particularly, I was simply the only one who hadn't come down with the lurgy - and I called into work to say I wasn't coming in because I was too tired. Yes, you heard me right. Colleagues later berated me, saying I should simply have 'thrown a sickie'. But I was trying to make a point, that childcare sometimes unavoidably intrudes on work, that the balance between life and work was wrong (this was before the Working Time Directive introduced Dependency Leave). My boss hauled me in to his office and gave me a sarcastic verbal mauling, the main thrust of which was, 'Call yourself a man? Call yourself a professional? 'Tired' is not a word I want to hear you utter in my hearing ever again,' etc, etc. Is what she's doing undermining working women? Well, I suppose it is if you believe women should be treated the same as men - i.e. with total scorn for even raising the issue of family life or childcare at work. 

  10. I admire her courage, but i'm a bit irritated by it, on the other hand. That's because i would be the mother muttering something about the emergency, not the one telling everybody that i chose to go because that's what i planned. I did it once though and it felt increadibly good.

    waiting for your next post.


  11. Gaby, I was just looking at your blog ahead of the Resolution Foundation session on Thursday and read this article. It's refreshing that Louise felt she could leave at that time and that her job was done etc. What I'd really love to see is Parliament and the parties leading the way on flexibility and creating a job-share format for MPs. Two bright, talented, committed people doing a good job in the commons and in the constituency but balancing this with a home life. Perhaps we could increase the number of women from the current 22% and have a better parliamentary perspective on families and people. What do you think?