Show Hide image

Laurie Penny: this divorce tax is emotional terrorism

Persuading poor people to stay married eases the strain on housing stocks and provides a modesty slip for inequality.

The denial of compassion is big business for this government. Under the coming austerity package, which includes a de facto large tax break for bankers, single mothers will be punished more than any other group in society, save those with severe disabilities. Roll that sentence around your mouth and see how bitter it tastes.

This month, expected plans by the Tories to charge separating couples to use the Child Support Agency - essentially a divorce tax for parents - have hit the news. Put this in the context of tax credits and housing benefit cuts that will force many single mothers out of their homes and leave hundreds of thousands more in penury, the removal of legal aid services that allow women to leave abusive husbands without threatening their children's safety, and cuts to front-line public services that will leave more than a million women jobless, and it is hard not to see the scheme as an attack on women dressed up in the bad, Thatcherite drag of think-of-the-children-ism.

What the coalition has just done has made it all but illegal for women earning much under £25,000 a year to leave their husbands. Why? Because it wilfully misunderstands the purpose of the welfare state. In The Pinch, written at the height of Tory propagandising against single and working mothers, David Willetts, who is now a cabinet minister, laments: "A welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men."

This is untrue. The welfare state was brokered at a time of high employment when many women were raising children alone because of wartime bereavement. It was there to protect women, working unpaid, from destitution, and was later expanded to allow women with children the option of independence from men. That painfully won independence has just been kneecapped.

Think of the children

The line we are usually spun is that marriage is good for kids, but anyone who grew up with parents guilt-tripped into staying together "for the sake of the children" will understand why decades of research has failed to prove any causative, rather than correlative, link between parents staying married and children growing up happy. The notion that marriage, which only ceased to be understood as a deal to protect property within the past century, magically creates loving relationships through the power of a legally binding document is just propaganda.

Furthermore, it's quite possible that couples forced to stick together because of the financial threat of this new divorce tax might not go on to create a happy little house on the prairie together.

None of this matters to the coalition. The real reason behind the government's crusade to "recognise marriage in the tax system" is breathtakingly cynical: it's about saving money. Persuading poor people to stay married eases the strain on housing stocks and provides a modesty slip for rising inequality; rich couples can still divorce as they please.

This financial intimidation of women with families has nothing to do with the welfare of children and less still to do with "family values". It is a simple cash-grab, dressed up in the language of moral manipulation. This intimate micromanagement of the personal relationships of the poor is a shameless about-face for a party that accused Labour of instituting a nanny state.

The sheer hypocrisy of withdrawing welfare only to shrink the state small enough to fit into people's bedrooms, and the cruelty of playing on women's guilty fear of being bad parents in order to force them to swallow Thatcherite benefit cuts have nothing to do with child welfare.

It's emotional terrorism, and any government should be above it.

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

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, War on WikiLeaks

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.