The political problem of parents priced out of work

The government is slowly waking up to the crisis in affordable childcare.

With the economic climate looking unremittingly bleak, government will have to focus on ways to ease the pain for people on low and middle incomes feeling the famous squeeze. One area that has grabbed ministers' attention is the rising cost of childcare. This is problematic not just because it is a drain on parents' income, but because it can even discourage them from going to work. Eleven per cent of full-time mothers say they stay at home because they can't afford the costs of childcare. Twenty-four per cent of those using childcare say they struggle to meet the cost.

Those statistics -- and plenty more that are equally interesting -- are contained in a new pamphlet by the Social Market Foundation thinktank. It catalogues in some detail the factors that have driven up the cost of childcare as a proportion of household income. Funding and benefits that were introduced at the end of the John Major government (the ability to discount childcare costs from income when applying for housing benefit, for example) and during the Labour government (childcare vouchers, free nursery hours and tax credits) have been frozen or cut, while costs have risen. Meawnhile, as general wages have stagnated, ever more households are relying on two incomes to make ends meet. I recommend the pamphlet -- it isn't too long and is full of useful data -- for a more detailed account of what has happened.

The bottom line is that government will have to step in and rebuild some of the lost subsidy or face more women -- and some men too -- dropping out of the labour market just to look after their children, which is bad for the economy and, in terms of developmental research cited in the report, bad for kids too.

This is an issue that poses a bit of a problem for Iain Duncan Smith, whose Universal Credit (UC) is supposed to make work a more lucrative and attractive option for people currently on benefits. As currently modelled, the UC contains a disincentive for second earners in households with children going back to work (their benefits will be withdrawn faster than would be the case when there is just one earner in a household.) This is either a mistake or, just possibly, the result of a small "c" conservative prejudice about what constitutes a healthy family set-up -- ie. reflecting a view that "second earners", usually mums, should be staying at home with their kids. Official government policy, of course, is to get as many people who can work into work as quickly as possible.

In any case, the government is desperately trying to work out ways to make childcare more affordable, which means finding ways to move money around within a limited pot. Then there is the secondary problem of who in the coalition gets the credit for helping families pay for nursery places. I've written before that this is an area where Nick Clegg and IDS compete for the right to sound compassionate. It is plainly within the DWP remit, but it is Clegg who has flagged up the problem and pushed it at "quad" level -- that is, the committee of four top ministers who coordinate coalition policy.

I understand that an announcement on more childcare support is ready, but that it has been delayed by arguments over who in the coalition should have the privilege of doling out goodies when there is so much doom and gloom dominating the rest of the news agenda.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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