Working mums and their frustration at being ignored will decide this general election – disregard them at your peril

Workington Man may be the latest buzzword as politicians look to play to the nation, but a squeeze on childcare has created an army of voters who will lead the charge at the ballot box this December

Sarah Ronan
Sunday 03 November 2019 11:44
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Mothers have always had to find a balance between work and childcare
Mothers have always had to find a balance between work and childcare

She’s exhausted, overstretched and undervalued, but still politically engaged enough to make a difference. Politicians ignore working mums at their own peril.

You can always tell when campaigning shifts up a gear because the Conservatives begin to recall the existence of the north. This time it is the rugby league-loving men of Cumbria that have caught their eye – a dubious honour, if ever there was one. And while Workington Man will go down in the annals of election history alongside his cousins from Essex and Worcester, somewhere out there, lurking beneath the radar of many think tanks, is a woman making her way home from a job that pays her 17.3 per cent less than it should, to collect her child from a nursery that she can scarcely afford.

She scrolls through news stories of female MPs stepping down from office while male politicians have the whip restored to them, despite allegations of sexual harassment (with one MP having had a recent allegation against him dropped). Occasionally her frustration at the state of politics is interrupted by the worry that her child’s nursery is rumoured to be one of the 179 that will close this month. She’s Working Mum and you can find her at the intersection of feminism and economics.

We’re currently in that awful pre-manifesto stage of electioneering where we’re drip-fed potential policies on a daily basis in order to gauge our reaction. Such teases. It reminds me of the time I was trying to catch a mouse that was squatting in my airing cupboard. One day, I put out cheese, the next day I put out bread. Eventually, it was the peanut butter that lured the mouse into the trap. This week’s peanut butter has been childcare. Labour has shown it’s hand early by confirming that they’ll expand the 30-hours of free childcare to include two-year-olds. While the Conservatives look set to increase the current offering from 38 weeks during term time to 48 weeks.

Of course, neither policy goes far enough for mothers who still bear the majority of caring responsibilities while trying to maintain a career. What remains to be seen is how either party intends to fund any potential reform. Government underfunding of childcare and early years education has left a £662m hole in the finances of the industry, resulting in low wages among a workforce that is 98 per cent female. Research by Nursery World found that half of childcare workers earn poverty wages with one in 10 living below the poverty line. Of those surveyed, 76 per cent had children of their own – they too are working mums.

The childcare quagmire is Capitalism 101: leverage the needs and desires of one group of workers against the needs and desires of another. What think tanks might fail to grasp is that Working Mum cares about more than her own personal struggle. A friend of mine who earns nicely in a PR role recently told me that her daughter’s nursery key worker broke down in tears one day at collection time. She told my friend that she was struggling to pay the bills and didn’t know how she could continue in her role.

My friend who pays £1,000 a month to this woman’s employer has recently wondered the same about her own job. Both women are salary brackets apart yet united by their shared experience of spinning plates. You see, Working Mum transcends the Brexit division. She is all occupations and all constituencies. She’s Gen X, she’s a millennial, and she’s Gen Y. She’s a woman that’s had enough, and you ignore her vote at your peril.

On her commute home, Working Mum scrolls through Instagram and follows some more inspirational women that keep her motivated. She may be exhausted and pissed off, but she’s not defeated and she knows that change is possible, because she’s seen it – in the form of #MeToo, gender pay gap reporting and the right to request flexible working.

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On Friday night’s episode of The Last Leg, Sandi Toksvig suggested that the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) could win if there was another surprise election. Let’s be honest, four elections in four years would eliminate any element of surprise, but Toksvig’s claim received a rapturous response from the audience. In the last week, I’ve heard several mums mention the 1975 Icelandic strike that saw 90 per cent of the country’s women down tools to highlight the value of their labour. Whether it’s via a political party or school-gate small talk, it’s clear that women want to see change.

That change might not come in the form of a nationwide strike or a WEP election win, but it is coming and this December the charge will be led by Working Mum. Frustrated by policies that make neither motherhood nor work easier, and exhausted by a society that tells her she can ‘have it all’ without providing the infrastructure to do so, she’ll decide this election, not Workington Man. She’ll just have to do it before she collects the kids.

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