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

Show Hide image

Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.