The Marriage Tax Allowance is an expensive way of harnessing resentment and feelings of superiority

David Cameron's proposed tax break for married couples is an expensive way of saying that some people's lives are better than others.

Marriage is not about church bells and white dresses. It’s not even about love. It’s a public statement and a political act, regardless of whether you stage a five-star blow-out wedding reception or settle for the registry office, two witnesses and a bus ride home.

You don’t have to wear a ring. You don’t have to change your name. You don’t have to swear to honour and obey. In fact, if you’ve been living together before you married, there’s basically nothing you have to do that’s any different to before. If you’re a woman, you can carry on using the title Ms and get precisely the same level of half-hearted derision that you got before. You don’t even need to use the words “husband” and “wife” (although people will then think that in using the word “partner” you’re practising some ill-defined form of deception). Life goes on as it did before. Relationships don’t become harder or more morally edifying. Nevertheless, what you think you’ve got – legal formalisation of a union – and what you’ve actually got – involuntary membership of the Superior Relationships Club – are two different things. You and the rest of your family unit will be co-opted into the next Tory Party Conference speech as statistical proof of “what works”  before the registry ink’s gone dry.

Opposition to same-sex marriage has demonstrated the passion with which certain groups view marriage not just as a personal commitment, but as an endorsement of one very particular type of family unit. Their circular argument (man + woman = marriage because marriage = man + woman) is both mind-numbing and deeply dishonest. Bigoted value judgments shouldn’t hide behind claims to linguistic purity. Yet even those who are not opposed to same-sex marriage can end up privileging an institution which is exclusive and culturally oppressive. The same circularity that governs same-sex marriage opposition governs pro-marriage rhetoric (married people are more likely to stay together because people who are more likely to stay together get married). All the same, it’s got to be worth it for an extra £150 a year, right?

Before we all rush to the altar perhaps the most important thing to remember about David Cameron’s proposed tax breaks for married couples is that they’re not actually for married couples. Transferable tax breaks work for a certain type of married couple, in which one person – ooh, let’s say he’s the man – earns more than the other – hey, she could be the woman, possibly at home with the kids. I’m not suggesting this type of couple is worse than any other, nor that it’s not possible for a couple with a different domestic set-up to still benefit from the proposal. But let’s be honest: this isn’t a benefit for married couples, it’s a message, and an expensive one at that. It says “married couples are better, and especially these ones”. It has little to do with care or need, still less with supporting children. It’s another way of harnessing resentment, disapproval and feelings of superiority. This government might be woeful at managing the economy but they’re masters at manipulating the worst impulses of our lesser selves.

Last week George Osborne announced that lone parents with children aged three or four would be obliged to “prepare for work”. On the face of it it’s confusing. Stay-at-home parents rock as long as they are married to working spouses. Working parents deserve tax breaks as long as they have stay-at-home spouses. Parents who are both earning, married or unmarried, won’t get tax breaks but will get frog-marched into the “hardworking families” category (where you’re allowed to feel bitter, as long as you remember to blame the poor). Single parents, meanwhile, regardless of whether or not they’ve been married – regardless of their beliefs about marriage, and regardless of the consequences they may have otherwise suffered by staying in a damaging relationship – are left to struggle alone. I don’t know, perhaps if the rest of us concentrate hard enough the sheer force of our disapproval will raise up wonder spouses from the mystic reals of 1950s Conservatoria. But then again maybe we shouldn’t try too hard. After all, who would we be able to feel superior to then?

Now find out why Eleanor Margolis wants "a gigantic, champagne-drenched, public celebration of same-sex love".


Not everyone's marriage looks like this. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.