Diane Abbott has been thinking long and hard of late about how Labour responds to the family. She offers the next instalment of her ideas in a speech to think tank Demos on Thursday, and will argue that rapid social and economic change has caused a ‘crisis of masculinity’ in Britain which manifests itself. Coffee House has been offered a preview of that speech, which marks a significant shift in the way Labour talks about the family.
Abbott believes the Conservatives have occupied this debate for too long, and wants her party to make families and fathers a priority. As a single mother and a left-wing feminist, her intervention is an attempt to reclaim this territory.
She will say:
‘Tomorrow, too many British men and boys will wake up isolated and misdirected by a boundless consumer outlook, economic instability and whirlwind social change.
‘Tomorrow, too many British men and boys who need the space and support to talk about manhood, expectations and boundaries from an early age, at schools, with other boys, and with their parents will remain silent.’
Abbott will argue that ‘this generation no longer asks itself what it means to be a man’ and that instead boys are struggling with a ‘culture of hyper-masculinity’ that involves ‘a celebration of heartlessness, a lack of respect for women’s autonomy; and the normalisation of homophobia. I fear it’s often crude individualism dressed up as modern manhood’.
Her solutions are ones that those on the right will quarrel with: full employment as a solution to many of the problems that young men face, which is an ambitious policy even when the jobs market has stayed impressively robust. And her desire for campaigns targeting men on obesity, sexual health and problem drinking sound excellent, but the money will come from local authority budgets which are already under pressure. But what is significant about this is the desire in the party – exhibited not just by Abbott but by Labour policy chief Jon Cruddas, too – to talk about the family and accept that there are problems with absent fathers. Where Labour previously shied away from this area, arguing that it was no business of government to tell families how to live, Abbott will say:
‘And I believe we need to say loudly and clearly, that there is a powerful role for fathers. The truth is that just as loving fathers are a benefit to children, so loving families are a benefit to men.’
She will still take care not to prescribe what an ‘ideal’ family is, but her emphasis is very much on the importance of Labour feminists articulating that there is a role for fathers, and it isn’t something the Left can ignore any longer. Abbott will give further details about how to end the ‘radio silence’ on masculinity in he speech on Thursday. As shadow public health minister, she’s well worth listening to for indications of how Labour’s thinking on relationships and families is going to develop in the run-up to the 2015 election.