Blaming women

Why Frank Field’s plan to address child poverty won’t work.

At last, the coalition shows its softer side. In the interests of making sure their policies are "fair" for the nation's poorest children, it has asked Frank Field, Labour MP to conduct a review of poverty and the effect on children's life chances.

To be fair, it was a sorry situation the coalition inherited. The gender pay gap widens to a huge 41 per cent when looking at the part-time workforce dominated by mothers. The salary needed to cover the average cost of childcare and housing without state support sits at about £26,000 a year, with the median average full-time salary sitting at well below that.

Discrimination against mothers in the workplace is so widespread that women having their children young may find they never get to experience a career on the same terms as everyone else. Mothers are concentrated in low-paid, part-time positions that allow them to balance paid work with the unpaid 24/7 job that is parenting.

Most women in Britain, married or not, working or not couldn't afford to breed without the support of either a partner or the state. The very act of "breeding" ensures they are highly unlikely to be able to provide for themselves and their children alone, and there are no guarantees that the person they "breed" with will always be a willing, able, or safe provider.

Twenty-one per cent of working single parents are in poverty, and the rapidly rising cost to the state of subisidising this inequality has contributed to our booming tax credits and housing benefit bill. The receipt of housing benefit and tax credits when I worked full-time as a social worker meant that, after paying rent, childcare, utilities, student loan and travel to work, I was able to spend about £100 per month on food and the clothes that my daughter had the temerity to grow out of.

There are organisations that would have shared their extensive research with Mr Field. He could have looked at the overwhelming evidence that mothers act as "shock absorbers" of poverty within families, and the effect this has on their mental and physical health, as well as their ability to parent. He could have taken a passing glance at the plentiful evidence of widespread discrimination in the workplace experienced by mothers of young children – preventing many from entering the workplace at all. He could have looked at the exorbitant cost of childcare in the UK. On Friday, Unicef declared that urgent action was needed to tackle the income poverty caused by low wages of households with children in the UK.

So I read Mr Field's report cover to cover – after all, something needs to be done. All the things I thought were crucial to understanding children's poverty are apparently irrelevant. What children need is secure and loving parenting, and parents who are poor clearly cannot be trusted to do this, so money paid to them should be diverted into "early years intervention care" so that clever graduate professionals can raise children's aspirations.

Mind the gap

Frank Field's report is the centrepiece of a strategy to tackle child poverty, which has so far seen huge cuts to the housing benefit, and tax credits that allow the parents of young children to work and stay in their communities.

Single parents are to be forced on to JSA when their children are five, with their housing benefit being cut a further 10 per cent if they fail to fly in the face of widespread discrimination and secure employment, and mothers of babies as young as one will face financial sanctions for not "keeping in touch with the labour market". Conditions of the replacement to the current tax credit system are likely to look at whether working mothers requiring state support are doing enough paid work, and dictate their working patterns accordingly.

Our "feminist" equalities minister Lynne Featherstone MP announced this week that companies will not be required to address the gender pay gap in their organisations, and the legal aid that would allow individual mothers of young children to challenge employers when they experience discrimination has been dropped.

Rapidly rising female unemployment is to be addressed by slashing hundreds and thousands of jobs in our public sector done predominantly by women. Still, now that the clause in our Equality Bill which demands that legislation be assessed on its impact on equality has been dropped, it isn't like anyone can point this out.

After nudging women out of the workplace and into poverty – nudging equality out of our legislation, nudging away women's ability to seek legal help to challenge this, and slashing the meagre state funding that bridges some of that inequality – early years professionals need to teach these feckless women (and let's face it, it is mainly women we are talking about) to centre their lives around Surestart, so they can be taught to be "better". Create poverty and blame women for the effects.

Now I don't want to be disingenuous. I knew that part of Frank Field's remit had been to eliminate a "couples penalty" from our tax and benefit system. A penalty calculated by omitting the cost of childcare, or the earnings potential of women with children.The anti-abortion charity Christian Research Action and Education (Care) has long been grateful for the support of Iain Duncan Smith and Frank Field in campaigning about it.

Frank Field's belief then was that if you took money away from single mothers, they would be more inclined to find themselves a man – thus improving their outlook. I thought the coalition had quietly dropped this obscene aim, but it would appear it has been achieved completely – without anyone bothering to announce it.

Christopher Hitchens is apparently incorrect: the cure for poverty isn't empowering women, it's marriage or Surestart.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.