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Stella Creasy on her lonely maternity cover battle: ‘Women should be able to have kids and do politics’

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Stella Creasy is dodging people on the pavement as we talk. She apologises for the background noise but it’s hard finding time for a conversation when you have a newborn son, a toddler daughter, and no proper maternity leave from a full-time job as Labour MP for Walthamstow; this walk to an appointment is the only window she has. Last month, she spoke in a Commons debate on childcare, baby Pip in a sling, sounding astonishingly composed for someone who had given birth four weeks earlier. I ask how she’s feeling and she laughs briefly and says: “Tired as hell, mad as anything.”

And then it all comes tumbling out: the night before that debate, she’d been in hospital with an infection she thinks was brought on by doing too much. The day after her caesarean, she was dialling into meetings with the defence secretary from hospital – she has had about 200 cases in her London constituency of people seeking help getting family members out of Afghanistan – and has barely stopped since. “There wasn’t any alternative,” she says. “These are people ringing up my staff threatening to kill themselves because they’re so worried about family members. You can hear the terror in their voices.” Meanwhile, she’s grappling with “the mum guilt” for not taking more time off, while struggling to be patient with people in parliament who ask how she is, only to back away when answered honestly. Having lost a battle with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) this summer over the maternity leave cover she wanted, Creasy refuses to draw a polite veil over the consequences. And if that means breaking the working mother taboo against admitting that everything is not in fact fine, then so be it.

“What we ask mothers to do is disappear and not make anyone feel awkward or uncomfortable,” she says. “People who have made promises that they would investigate this matter are coming back to me saying, ‘Oh great, you’ve had the baby and it’s OK now.’” Well-meaning colleagues tell her, she says, to look after herself, but “it would be really great if I had someone to look after the other stuff, rather than telling me I’ve been doing too much”.

View image in fullscreenIn the Commons with son Pip last month. Photograph: House of Commons/PA

And that, in a nutshell, is her issue. Since they’re not legally classified as employees, MPs aren’t entitled to statutory maternity leave. New mothers get time off Westminster duties, but what happens in parliament is only a small part of the workload. There is no official leave from dealing with constituents’ problems, an unsung but vital part of the job. So MPs have traditionally fudged their way through, post-childbirth, trying to take some time off without letting voters down. But Creasy, who suffered a series of miscarriages before getting pregnant with her daughter, Hettie, in 2019, wanted clearer boundaries. For that pregnancy, she fought to hire parliament’s first ever locum to cover the constituency for six months.

Kizzy Gardiner, an ex-charity worker and local Labour party member, stood in for Creasy everywhere but the Commons chamber (which, as an unelected person, she couldn’t lawfully enter). The arrangement worked well but Creasy felt guilty that her stand-in wasn’t paid anywhere near an MP’s rate, so after she got pregnant again last autumn, she applied for another locum on closer to her £82,000 salary. Ipsa refused to authorise more than £60,000, arguing that an unelected stand-in couldn’t legally cover duties such as questioning ministers in the chamber. (Ipsa declined to comment for this article but cited a previous statement arguing “it is up to parliament to decide if the law should be changed so an unelected person can undertake these duties when an MP can’t be there”.)

Relations soured sufficiently that Creasy engaged lawyers. As her due date approached, she applied for extra caseworkers to cover at least some of the workload, but says that was also rejected on cost grounds. So she has barely stopped working at all. Turning up to debates now seems partly about signalling that she won’t go quietly, even if it means “making people feel uncomfortable, looking my kid in the eye”. Even that elicited a ticking-off from parliamentary clerks, who argued that she hadn’t given the required day’s notice for coming in while on voting leave.

There are a lot of other MPs going through this now, and I know there will be more

She says she is tired of being treated as if she was being difficult for wanting to try something that is routine in other workplaces but novel to parliament. “I’m not difficult – just different,” Creasy says. “I know there are a lot of other MPs going through this now, and I know there will be more.” If so, perhaps the most painful aspect has been the gap opening between Creasy and some of her own female colleagues at least one of whom said something that, many months later, she will tell me she still can’t forgive.

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Stella Creasy is not afraid of ruffling feathers. Born into an avidly Labour-supporting middle-class family, she grew up in Colchester in Essex, the daughter of a teacher (her mother) and an opera singer (her father). After reading social and political sciences at Cambridge, she cut her teeth in politics as a researcher to Labour MPs including Douglas Alexander and Charles Clarke, then as a councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest. She was selected from an all-woman shortlist to fight the safe seat of Walthamstow and stood out from the moment she was elected in 2010, thanks to a series of high-profile campaigns on media-friendly issues.

She fought successfully to cap the cost of so-called payday loans, with some lenders charging desperate people interest rates of up to 4,000%, and for a crackdown on misogynistic internet trolling (more recently, she has campaigned to make misogyny a hate crime). Within 18 months of being elected, she was on Ed Miliband’s frontbench as shadow minister for crime prevention, and four years after that she came runner-up to Tom Watson in Labour’s deputy leadership contest, a mark of her grassroots popularity.

Gregarious as she is, there is something of the cat that walks alone about Creasy. During her frontbench years there were mutterings about her not being a “team player”. It’s a criticism rarely aimed at similarly independent-minded men, of course, but it’s true that she seems happier launching one-woman crusades than reciting someone else’s lines; while she rarely rebels against the whip, she likes to plough her own furrow when choosing causes. When I ask if her battle for maternity cover was complicated by factional rivalry inside Labour (she’s seen as being on the right), she says, plaintively: “No, because I’m clearly not in anybody’s gang, am I?” Out in the cold politically during the Corbyn years, she is ideologically closer to Keir Starmer, yet remains on the backbenches. At only 44, she jokes that she’s practically a grandee – a Westminster nickname for former big beasts, periodically weighing in from a distance.

View image in fullscreen‘Why do we think motherhood should be about sacrifice in some way?’ Hair and makeup (this image and top): Dani Richardson, using Armani Beauty and Kevin Murphy haircare. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

Her courage, however, is not in doubt. She has faced death threats from the far right over her anti-misogyny campaigns, deselection threats from the left over her criticisms of Corbyn, and (after campaigning for abortion rights for Northern Irish women) anti-abortion campaigners plastering her constituency with posters featuring dead foetuses. Creasy normally brushes such things off. But the brutal murder of the Conservative MP David Amess, a few weeks after our interview, forces many MPs to think twice about the risks they run in politics. When I call Creasy again shortly after Amess’s death, she is clearly upset. “I can’t comprehend that I’m not going to see him again, standing at the top of the escalators, asking me about the kids,” she says, as the baby gurgles on her lap. But she is nonetheless frustrated by arguments that MPs may need to become less open to their constituents. “If there are people out there targeting public figures, then we should be targeting those people, not asking public figures to be in a gilded cage,” she says. “My worry is that we have become almost inured to the idea that this is going to happen, and that the debate is about what security MPs have, not ‘How are we risk-assessing the threats people might face?’” It’s this idea that the system needs to change, rather than individuals simply being expected to tough it out, that also colours Creasy’s approach to how parliament handles working parents.

Things have changed since 1982, when a heavily pregnant (and newly elected) Harriet Harman arrived in parliament to letters from the public saying her children would suffer from having a working mother. Parliamentary working hours were reformed to reduce late-night votes, and the Commons now has its own nursery. In 2001 Labour’s Yvette Cooper became the first minister to take maternity leave in office; in 2019 proxy votes were introduced for pregnant or sick MPs, after Labour’s Tulip Siddiq was forced to vote from a wheelchair the day before her caesarean. Other European countries, including Denmark and Holland, have introduced full maternity cover for parliamentarians. But in the British system, constituency work remains a hurdle, given the personal nature of MPs’ connection with the people they represent. An expectation lingers that politicians can’t be seen to need time off, mirroring the fear many working mothers have of being perceived as uncommitted. Creasy, however, wonders why more women don’t talk honestly about all this.

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“It’s almost like this Instagram thing, isn’t it? ‘We’ve all got this, we’re all amazing, wonderful people, therefore carry on.’ And you think, OK, but maybe we could also make it a bit … easier?” Besides, she says she doesn’t want to lie to constituents. “They live in a world where if this happened in their own workplaces, they would have rights. If people want to start saying, ‘This is why we shouldn’t have MPs who are women of childbearing age’, then it’s a very troubling development.” She’ll hate the comparison but I am reminded of the then Tory MP Louise Mensch announcing a decade ago in the middle of a televised parliamentary hearing that she was leaving early to collect her kids. Mensch, a high-profile figure who had been a bestselling author before politics, divided opinion between those who thought it a powerful statement that everyone has childcare needs, and those who thought she was letting the side down or grandstanding. Having discussed it privately with Mensch afterwards, I found she very much had her reasons, and something similar is true of Creasy.

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When we first speak at length in August, she is still eight months pregnant with Pip, and suffering from gestational diabetes, a condition with which pregnant women’s bodies become temporarily unable to regulate their blood sugars. Outwardly polished, in bright pink lipstick, she is clearly anxious on the inside. A few days earlier, she went to A&E, scared because she couldn’t feel the baby moving (stillbirth is a risk with the condition). Despite taking a cocktail of drugs to manage it, she has been warned – correctly, as it turns out – that she’ll probably have to deliver the baby prematurely. She tells me: “I’m terrified, because it is my body doing something that puts my baby at risk. The longer a baby stays in the womb, the better it is for it, but if your womb is suddenly a toxic place …” She trails off, before adding: “My partner talks about my self-loathing, he’s like ‘You’re blaming yourself’, because you do. I’ve lost babies before, so it’s the worst that can happen, in the sense of your fear and your desperate desire as a mother to protect your child.” Had she been her own employer, she’d have signed herself off. But that isn’t an option when over the summer Walthamstow suffers flash flooding, three murders and the fallout of events in Kabul.

Creasy fought the 2019 general election while eight and a half months pregnant with Hettie, but this, she says, is tougher. “It’s a very sudden thing – you feel extremely hot and tired and confused. You don’t get any warning with gestational diabetes.” During her first pregnancy, she was “sending emails on the way over to the hospital”; this time she knows she isn’t well. “And, of course, that’s a worry – what that does to the baby as well, because stress is connected to your sugars.”

She keeps underlining that her situation isn’t unique: one in four women have experienced pregnancy discrimination during the pandemic, while many working mothers fear being singled out for redundancy as furlough ends. “A lot of the work I’ve done over the last year with campaigning organisations like Pregnant Then Screwed has been about getting into the conversations happening at national level. Why do we think motherhood should be about sacrifice in some way – that every mother should be a martyr? I don’t want to be a martyr – I just want to be a good mum and a good MP.” Having a locum with Hettie had, she says, helped that feel possible.

One colleague suggested that I was using the fact that I’d had multiple miscarriages to get coverage

But then Creasy says something unexpected. “Often the employers and the people who can be hardest on pregnant women are other women, and that will chime with other people. The sadness of the sisterly solidarity that you might think is there, falling short.”

What does she mean? She hesitates briefly, then says: “I had one of my colleagues suggest to me in 2019 that I was using the fact that I’d had multiple miscarriages and the lack of maternity cover to get myself coverage. I have to say I held it together in that meeting and walked out and burst into tears, because if anybody thinks it’s easy to talk about experiencing miscarriage and then subsequent pregnancies … ” She won’t say who it was, except that it was a woman.

When campaigning for her first locum in 2019, Creasy wrote to all the party leaders, and was grateful for the support of Theresa May, the then Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and the SNP’s Ian Blackford. There was, she says, no response from Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Starmer sent flowers when her second baby was born. But when she wrote back detailing concerns about maternity cover, she says, his office did not follow up. She was, she adds, warned off campaigning for a locum by other mothers in parliament. “I know that some have suggested that this is ‘golden skirt feminism’ – an elite asking for special privileges – but actually for me it’s about the message that we send, that our politics should be open to everybody at all stages of their lives from whatever background.” Still, she was genuinely shocked when Ipsa disclosed that its decision in 2019 not to consult on introducing locums for maternity cover was influenced by opposition from the women’s parliamentary Labour party, then chaired by the feminist MP Jess Phillips. “I’m not going to pretend it’s not heartbreaking for me, as somebody who has been active as a feminist and a socialist all my life, that there is an opposition within my own party,” Creasy says. The puzzle is why other female MPs, with lifelong records of fighting for other women’s rights, seem so reluctant to demand their own.

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Asking around female Labour MPs, the consensus is that it’s partly bad timing; during the hung parliament under Theresa May, when every vote counted and pregnant MPs were under intense pressure, there was cross-party support for compassionate reforms. Now that the Tories have a big majority, absences are much easier to arrange. But the biggest hurdle is that MPs are still paid in full while on leave from voting. Many are wary of arguing publicly for what would be maternity leave on full pay, at a time when many ordinary women’s packages are not so generous and politicians are already unpopular.

View image in fullscreenIn the Commons with her daughter Hettie, June 2020. Photograph: UK Parliament

During a meeting of female MPs in 2019 to decide a common position on locums (which Creasy couldn’t attend), many voiced concerns about getting a better deal than their constituents, Phillips tells me. “It just was not the prevailing wind of the room, who were mostly either pregnant or had recently returned from maternity leave, and felt nervous, rightly or wrongly, about asking for too much,” she says, although she points out that views may change over time. “Stella has our support in what’s clearly been a very difficult time for her. If any woman feels the system is working against her having a baby, we’ve got to try to make it better.”

Creasy, for her part, says she’s acutely aware of concerns about seeking a better deal than women in other workplaces, but points out that in February, the government amended legislation to allow the pregnant attorney general, Suella Braverman, to take maternity leave on full pay from her cabinet job. Why shouldn’t there be, she argues, the same deal for backbenchers as Tory ministers? Still, to date, no other MP has tried to get a locum.

Months of banging her head against this brick wall have clearly taken their toll, following a difficult pregnancy and repeated miscarriages. (Earlier this month, Creasy marked Baby Loss Awareness Week on Facebook by posting some old pictures of herself at work – in a meeting, being filmed at a protest – noting that in each one she was secretly in the middle of losing a baby.) When I ask if she’s ever tempted to quit politics altogether, she insists she’s going nowhere. “​​I’m sorry to disappoint the many who will be hopeful,” she says, wryly. “I’ve been in the Labour movement since I was a 15-year-old, and I’ve campaigned and disagreed with every single Labour party leader my entire life, and I’m sure that will continue. I’m a woman who knows her own mind.” Besides, she says, the pushback has encouraged her to keep campaigning on issues such as the cost of childcare and workplace discrimination in pregnancy. There must, she argues, be thousands of women whose talents are being wasted because they’re made to feel unwelcome at work after having children.

Would she still encourage women to enter politics, though? That is, she snorts, half the point of having the argument. “There are already people online doing that ‘If you wanted to have babies you should never have stood’ thing, and every time I read those I remember why I’m fighting, because there are brilliant women out there who should be able to have kids and do politics. I don’t want to ask brilliant women to wait 20 years until their kids have grown up.” It’s all very well saying that others have managed or muddled through in the past, she says, but “the socialist case is not to ask women to manage. It’s a radical change of scenery which means that we unlock the potential of everybody. We can’t be in a position where we think it’s acceptable that most women in public life are either of a certain age, or have made the choice not to have children.”

Any future change in the rules will come too late for Creasy, who isn’t planning to have another child. But that won’t, she suggests, stop her battling on.

“You could say I clearly haven’t won my colleagues over on this, and I need to do more work,” she says. “But do I think that this is how our politics should be – that we let a few more women in, so long as they will play by the rules of the existing status quo? No. As long as I am an MP, I will keep pushing the boat.” Even, it seems, if that comes at some personal cost.