Family matters

Labour is divided over how to address family issues - Ed Miliband needs to work out his strategy, fa

Senior parliamentary and shadow cabinet figures say that Labour is increasingly split on its approach to the family. As the party prepares its response to the UK Riots Inquiry Panel, this conflict has been thrown into stark relief. It's a case of serious family politics, and it cuts to the heart of what Labour is about.

Leading the old guard are the likes of Yvette Cooper who - perhaps understandably given her position as shadow home secretary - want Labour's response to the riots to lead on police cuts. Harriet Harman is also in this camp, although she is keen to broaden the narrative out to youth unemployment and cuts to youth services.

Shadow cabinet member Diane Abbott didn't want to comment on the splits, but she said that when it came to family life, "the majority of the shadow cabinet would rather park this issue."

But she does not seem convinced that this is the right approach:

“Some of my colleagues are skeptical of Ian Duncan Smith's family narrative and I share that up to a point. I'm a single mum... and don't want to feel second class because of it... but we shouldn't abandon talking about the family to the right and extremist religious nut jobs."

Off the record, another parliamentary source went even further:

"We've got to do police but family is equally relevant, and if we don't tackle that we will be out of touch. This is not just a post riots issue, it goes much deeper."

We need to wait for the evidence before we can make a judgement on any relationship between riots and family life. But the need for a new and deeper narrative about families and relationships is something I wholeheartedly believe in. Because as a councillor, I have to deal with cases of family break down every day, but I don't think Labour is getting it.

This week a fifteen-year-old told me that the first interaction he ever had with his dad was when he found him on Facebook.

The week before, a young guy nearly got glassed in a pub fight. His dad works as a local police officer, but said he wouldn't come down because he "wasn't on duty" that night.

What does Labour have to say about these cases?

At the moment the new Top Boy series resonates more with people than their political leaders.

These ideas are simmering in other parts of the party. Next week David Lammy MP is set to bring out his new book Out of the Ashes. It's strictly embargoed, but we can expect a post-liberal narrative that deals with fatherhood and masculinity as much as resources and benefits. Lammy told me:

"Social liberalism has delivered huge gains for ethnic minorities and women, but it can't answer everything. We may well need a more small c conservative response to bring the country together as more than individuals."

Blue Labour sympathisers like Jon Cruddas MP have been pushing the party in this direction for a long time, as reiterated in his inaugural Attlee lecture a few weeks ago. With a new leader and an election three years away, there is growing pressure for Labour to change.

I understand the anxieties about speaking out. There is a worry that defending the family really means slating single parent homes. There is a concern that we'll have to make value judgements about marriage or the role of women, or that we'll offend liberal ideas about the role of the state. But there must be a better way of reframing this debate. If you want to hear about the family, why should you have to go to the Tories?

Yes Labour did some great things for families in material terms. Huge amounts. But we didn't make the emotional link between polices and what mattered to people. We didn't speak to people's experience or values; we managed them in silence. It's not enough to throw in the occasional dry reference to responsibility - we need to talk about honour, love, loyalty, fear and hate.

Ed Miliband gets this argument in intellectual terms. But it's still unclear how far he'll go to change the party line. We urgently need to find a way of doing that, because these are the realities people are living with. Fatherhood. Family. They matter to people. And after all the cuts, that guy's dad is still working as a police officer, and his son hasn't stopped fighting.

Rowenna Davis is the author of Tangled Up In Blue

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.