Election 2015

Baby, there's an election on

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Image caption Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harman look delighted to be meeting a young member of the Stockwell Gardens Nursery

It's an old joke: politicians kissing babies on the doorstep. Whether it garners votes or not, it's an accepted part of campaigning.

But what about when the baby belongs to the candidate?

Mothers and fathers with young children know all too well the physical exhaustion, the sleepless nights, the stress of dealing with babies and toddlers. Add a general election campaign in there too, and campaigning becomes a remarkable feat.

In April 2005, during the election campaign, the Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy became a father. He said he would take a few days off from pounding the streets and knocking on doors, following the birth of his first child Donald, re-entering the fray with "a song in my heart and a spring in my step".

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Image caption Charles Kennedy and his wife Sarah, with their newborn son Donald during the election campaign in 2005

Not long after, Mr Kennedy blamed a stuttering performance on a lack of sleep, caused by the young baby.

So how do candidates cope?

Catherine McKinnell, the Labour candidate for Newcastle North, whose son was born in January, was first elected as an MP in 2010.

"All working parents face similar challenges of juggling, and I think it's important to remember that," she says.

"There are different challenges to the role of an MP or a candidate, given that an election campaign is evenings, weekends - it's unpredictable and it's an intense period."

She's been an MP with a young family, which includes living in two places, and she points out that she has her husband and extended family for support.

Image caption Ms McKinnell says she has relied on family support to juggle her work and home life

"I can't speak for everybody but my own experiences are, like with any busy job, so many people rely on family for support and especially at a time of the election campaign, family and friends come into their own."

Sarah Richardson, who stood as a Conservative candidate for the European elections in 2009, gave birth to her youngest child just a few weeks before.

She remembers knocking on doors with a baby strapped to her front, and says: "I used to drive to the constituency and not tell them I was turning up with a baby because I thought it would freak them out."

Before the elections got going in earnest, she turned up to a candidates' conference, Conservative Spring Forum, just after her son was born. "I had to stand outside the hall, because his gurgling was disturbing the media coverage. But then, Eric Pickles stood up and talked about how the party needed to be more diverse."

She remembers how he called her up to the stage to applause - and was handed a teddy bear "who we still call Mr Pickles".

Among the many problems as a candidate - "I've got friends who have children who start walking down paths towards houses to deliver leaflets" - she says exhausting the pram's suspension because of the leaflets piled up in it is one.

Catherine McKinnell says her older children don't come out canvassing - although they ask if they can - but she says people on the doorstep wish her well and are aware that she has a small baby.

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Image caption David Cameron's son Arthur Elwen was born before the Conservative leader became prime minister

So is there a difference for men and women on the doorstep?

"I think it's the selection process rather than the campaigning process where the reaction is different. If a male candidate turns up with heavily pregnant wife, everyone thinks he's a family man. Whereas if a woman turns up heavily pregnant, there are questions about how she's going to cope," Sarah Richardson says.

But for a family with a father or mother campaigning for office, she says it's important to include the family in the endeavour. Her husband, Damian Collins, is the Conservative candidate for the Folkestone and Hythe constituency.

"It is normal, if you're doing something on a Saturday morning, to take them [the children] along. Doing an activity as a family - however weird it might seem - is better than farming them out to a babysitter.

"It's important that we spend time as a family, while Damian is doing something quite strange."

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Image caption Ms Swinson and Mr Hames's baby was the first to be carried through the voting lobby of the Commons, in 2014

How do you keep some idea of family time? "[Campaigning] gives the children the feeling they're part of our lives and helping Daddy do his job."

Duncan Hames is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Chippenham, who is in the unusual position of being married to another Lib Dem candidate, Jo Swinson. The couple have a baby son.

So how does he cope?

"Grandparents is the one-word answer for you. We're very fortunate that grandparents are helping us with the exceptional childcare challenge posed by the general election campaign," he says.

He has shared the vicissitudes of childcare and the campaign with his wife. Ms Swinson looked after their baby son, with her parents, for the first two weeks of the campaign - and now Mr Hames has his company.

"It means that I have the joy of the start of the day with my son each morning. We have a bit of quality time together before my parents take over and I start my day's programme of events."

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Image caption Labour's Rachel Reeves (centre) says she plans to take maternity leave within weeks of the election

And does he experience a different attitude, as a father, on the doorstep?

"I'm sure we do. Mothers and fathers who aren't in politics get a different reaction in their communities.

"I think it's partly generational too. Men of my age are quite up for talking about fatherhood and parenting; older men, when I've turned up on doorstops unannounced with my son strapped to me, have maintained eye contact at my level so they didn't have to acknowledge the baby."

He believes that there's a gradual process of cultural change, which means that more and more men in politics are confident in talking about families and children: after all, as he points out, the education secretary is currently a woman and the minister in charge of childcare is a man and a father.

And having a young family means you can connect to voters' concerns; something that oracle on all-things family related, Mumsnet, points out.

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Image caption Will the royal couple's new arrival provide a welcome break from the election campaign?

Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet said: "When we asked MPs about their experiences of mixing political careers with family life, the results rather sadly confirmed what you might expect; nearly two-thirds said that being an MP had a negative effect on their family life - and that wasn't during a general election campaign, which takes so many politicians away from their families for long stretches.

"If we want Parliament to work for families, and if we want more women to be successful in politics, we need to find ways to allow politicians to have normal family lives themselves.

"One piece of advice from an anonymous MP rings true: 'Don't be embarrassed to say that you are a putting your family first. Help change the culture of politics.'"

Catherine McKinnell concurs. "The other aspect is keeping a balance and that's the beauty of having a family while doing this role. It can become very consuming, but with a family to find that balance; it helps you in your outlook, in what you're doing."

Of course, there is one baby who could make more of an impact at this election than any other.

The birth of the fourth in line to the throne is due any day; and while the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's second baby won't sway votes, it may give the electorate a longed-for break from the campaign.