The last Labour government oversaw a major expansion of support for families, with new investment in childcare, tax credits, maternity leave and children’s centres. Despite this investment, the left still struggles to demonstrate its ‘pro-family’ credentials and to affirm its backing for parents and committed family relationships.
Too often, this leaves us conceding important political territory, allowing the right to claim it understands families best. In a major new report, The Condition of Britain, IPPR argues that we need to show we back parents who are working hard to raise their children – including unequivocally supporting committed relationships.
For most of us, family is what we care about most, the embodiment of our aspirations and obligations. Despite the rising number of children born outside wedlock, we still aspire to marry or to form strong, stable relationships in which to raise our children. When we make that commitment to each other, we expect our friends and family, wider society and the state to back us. Yet many on the left struggle to articulate their support for commitment.
Part of the problem is a squeamishness about talking up the importance of stable relationships for fear of accusations of moralising or interfering in private lives. Politicians worry that they will be reproached for doing down lone parents or those whose relationships have broken down. A sharper concern is that they will be criticised for double standards because of failings in their own personal lives.
The result is a determination to remain resolutely neutral on the question of family structure and relationships. Without question, we must support families in all their diversity and the state should not privilege particular kinds of relationships or discriminate against those not in a relationship. But affirming support for commitment does not mean telling others how to live or looking down on those who are not in a relationship.
The other problem is that, in power, Labour’s family policy sometimes played down the role of parents in raising children. For instance, its child poverty strategy risked implying that the state rather than parents bear the primary responsibility for raising family incomes. While Labour’s investments generated real improvements in the quality of life of many families in Britain, at times it risked making families dependent on a benevolent state, undermining the importance of parental responsibility.
In an era of limited budgets, the priority must be to create the conditions in which families can thrive under their own steam.We need to take seriously the pressures on family life, not least the continued squeeze on living standards. But we must also demonstrate that we recognise and will nurture the capacities and strengths found within families, rather than being blind to people’s need for commitment, or playing down the critical role of parents in raising children.
In policy terms, this requires a bold ‘pro-family’ investment strategy that enables parents to work rather than relying on benefits to raise incomes, while protecting family time when it is most precious. IPPR proposes a guarantee of affordable, year-round, full-time childcare for all preschool children. We also want to see a full month of leave for working fathers, paid at least the minimum wage, and paid time off for dads to attend antenatal appointments. This would enable fathers to play a full role in parenting right from the start. And we propose weighting cash benefits towards young children, when parents find it harder to work, by allowing child benefit for to rise with inflation for under-fives but freezing it for older children to help fund investments in childcare.
We also need an unashamedly ‘pro-commitment’ strategy that backs relationships as well as supporting those facing relationship breakdown or parenting alone. The Conservatives want to achieve this with a tax break that only benefits a minority of married couples, although thankfully, they do not claim that anyone will choose to marry or stay married for a financial reward. We think a better use of this money would be to provide practical support for couples to stay together or make the process of relationship breakdown a little smoother, by giving everyone an entitlement to couples counselling when their relationship is under pressure. And we argue that a better way to signal support for marriage would be to end marriage notice fees, so that the state no longer charges couples for the pleasure of tying the knot.
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