Conservative Budget Cuts: An assault on single mothers

The Budget is a direct threat to all women who believe their future should not depend on the ability to catch a man.

If the Conservative Party is looking for a theme song that sums up its message for the next election, it could do worse than Beyoncé Knowles's pop smash "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)".

The Tories have already made it clear that a return to marriage as the fundamental framework of socio-economic control is the aspirational core of the party's ideology. Tuesday's emergency Budget sent an uncompromising message to women who have the temerity to divorce or to remain unmarried: single ladies will pay heavy penalties, especially if they have children.

As well as excising the health-in-pregnancy grant and other rare, precious tokens of state support for mothers, the new Budget expressly delineates welfare penalties and work sanctions for single parents, nine out of every ten of whom are women. Single mothers will now be required to find a job in today's shrivelled labour market as soon as their children are of school age, but as employers are under no obligation to pay a living wage that incorporates enough money to cover childcare, work itself will be no guarantee of a decent standard of living.

The changes to housing benefit -- justified with solemn anecdotes about chav families living in castles that sounded a little like the Chancellor had muddled his notes with a copy of the Daily Mail -- will also imperil lone-parent families, which are three times as likely to live in rented accommodation as families with two resident parents.

The charity Shelter has warned that the cuts will "push many households over the edge, triggering a spiral of debt, eviction and homelessness".

The Tories may have sidelined their plans to recognise marriage in the tax system, but the cuts announced in the new Budget are far more disastrous for women's rights than the crass symbolism of tax breaks for married couples, making it significantly more difficult for women to contemplate raising children without a man, any man, to offer the support that the new government takes moral exception at providing.

"Solutions" to poverty

Lisa Ansell, a single mother from London, explained that the new Budget may destroy her chances of building a stable home for herself and her three-year-old daughter. "I have worked all my life, and done everything right, but the VAT hike and housing benefit cuts mean I'm sitting here with a calculator wondering how I'm supposed to survive," she said.

"This attack on single mothers is directly in line with Conservative rhetoric about encouraging marriage," Ansell said. "If the only way for a poor woman to get out of poverty is a man, that has serious consequences for people like me and my daughter."

Like many lone parents, Ansell was relying on a job in the public sector to support her family, but after a freeze on recruitment in preparation for the cuts announced last week, the work she had lined up has disappeared.

"I am an intelligent woman and a good mother, but on Budget day, I woke up to find that I am society's garbage," she said. "If the new government feels that any woman who has a child with a man should be left in poverty if she separates from him, with a new sexual relationship her only route out, then it should just say so."

David Willetts MP, who is to sit on a new task force for children and families, articulates the Conservative attitude to women and the state with icy clarity in his recent book The Pinch. Lamenting the rise in divorce and praising marriage as a solution to poverty, Willetts complains: "A welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is being slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men."

A green paper on "the family", released in January by Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice, suggested that lone parenthood is responsible for "fracturing British society", and that governments should send a clear signal that "families matter".

Unfortunately for millions of parents, partners and children in Britain, only certain families truly matter to the Conservative Party. The entire premise of the Tory marital fetish is that "families" are not just any old riff-raff who love one other and are committed to each other's well-being: the proper form of the family in Conservative Britain is a rigid economic arrangement involving two married, cohabiting parents, preferably owning property and drawing as little state support as possible. Only 37 per cent of the population enjoy this sort of "traditional" arrangement, but Tory social policy has rarely taken the reality of working people's lives into account when imposing its diktats.

Unfeeling fetish

One does not need to be a socialist feminist to understand that the history of women's liberation has always been about economics. Indeed, after suffrage was achieved, the key victories of the women's movement in the 1970s involved the fight to allow women and children to be financially independent of men should the need arise.

The hypocrisy of the Tory family fetish, which rewards married, middle-class women for staying at home with their children while demonising poor, single women for doing the same, should remind the British left that even the most fundamental of progressive reforms can be reversed unless progressives remain vigilant. Contemporary Conservative policy on "the family" encodes a cold, reactionary moral agenda in the rhetoric of "allowing people real choice over their lives".

But this Budget threatens women's hard-won freedom to make important choices for themselves and their families: the choice to leave an unsuitable or violent partner without facing financial ruin; the choice to remain unmarried; the choice to live a dignified life independent of men, whether or not we have children. These choices are fundamental to women's rights. They are not optional extras that can be trimmed from the Budget whenever the nation feels the pinch; they are core provisions for female security in an unjust, patriarchal world, and they are priceless.

This Budget is not merely a repulsive moral assault on single mothers. It is a direct threat to all women who believe that our futures should not depend on the ability to catch and keep a man. The coalition has claimed that the cuts announced on Tuesday are "unavoidable", but the new Budget looks anything but reactive: it looks, among other things, like a concerted attack on women's hard-won freedoms, an attack based, in Harriet Harman's words, on ideology rather than economics.

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
Show Hide image

I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war