The politics of childcare are heating up. Here's why.

All parties are desperate for measures that will make life easier for hard-pressed families. Affordable childcare is an obvious candidate.

Often an issue only gets the attention it deserves due to a shift in the wider political context.  And so it may be with our creaking childcare system. Despite unprecedented increases in public support – and major improvements - it’s still the case that during the Labour years childcare never received anything like the concerted attention going to schools and hospitals.  Even now when surveys come out showing the cost of childcare racing ahead of inflation (never mind wages), they tend to be buried deep inside newspapers while increases in rail fares or petrol prices are splashed across the front pages. In political and media terms childcare has long been seen as a second-tier issue.

This may, however, be changing. Part of the reason is straight politics. None of the parties like what they are hearing in focus groups about the absence of ideas that would make a concrete difference to living standards. Labour still has a long way to go to recover the ground it lost with working families – particularly among modest earning women: recall that at the last election the Conservatives had a massive 16 point lead over Labour among C2 female voters, reversing Labour's towering 18 point advantage among the same group in 1997. Meanwhile Conservative strategists are fearful that their current strategy of appealing to so-called strivers (even while reducing their tax credits) by making a big play of bearing down on other less deserving groups, may at some point run out of road. Prior to the next election it may be met with the obvious retort from the working population: ok, but what have you actually done to improve my plight? That’s a question they don’t want to be asked. For their part, the Lib Dems remain frustrated that their efforts to lead the debate on expanding early years provision has gone almost entirely unnoticed – in part because it hasn’t been connected to an account of making it easier for families to combine work and home.

Of course, there is no single remedy to the multiple causes of the squeeze on living standards – and improved childcare is a very long way off being a panacea. It will be by no means universally popular. The great majority of voters don’t have young children. Some people vehemently resent more support for those with kids. Others will say that families should have someone at home.  

But the costs of inaction – both economic as well as political – are mounting. It’s fairly well known that childcare costs in the UK are very high and account for a large chunk of family incomes. (It’s less widely understood that for many families there has actually been a fall in the share of their incomes spent on childcare  – though that trend has been impeded by the recent cut in tax credit support for childcare costs, as the chart below shows).

Childcare costs as a % of after-tax income

Source: OECD, and Resolution Foundation childcare cost model, 2012. Childcare costs for family with two children aged two and three in full-time care, as a % of net family income, in 2008 and 2012. Black horizontal lines on the pink bars show what 2012 levels would have been had childcare support through tax credits remained at 80% rather than being cut to 70% in April 2011.

These costs weigh very heavily in the decision a couple takes as to whether to be dual or single earning. Indeed, in the context of falling real wages the only way many families will be able to protect, never mind enhance, their living standards is to work more hours. Obviously that’s no easy task given record levels of under-employment.  But let’s just assume that extra hours are available, and consider whether or not families would be better off from the second earner taking them given the costs of childcare.

Worth working? The impact of childcare costs

The chart sets this out for a stylised, typical middle income family with two young children. It assumes the first earner, the man, works full-time and the second earner, the woman, is deciding how many hours of work to undertake (apologies for the gender stereotypes, but it still reflects the norm).

It is a chart that politicians should pause over. There is some incentive for the woman to work for about 13 hours at which point the family is £4,500 better off a year than if she stayed at home. Beyond this further hours of work actually make the family worse off as the cost of childcare, and the withdrawal of tax-credit support, outweigh the post- tax gains from higher earnings. (This chart would look even bleaker if it was a for a low income working family with each earner on the minimum wage: they would only be a measly £300 better off a year if the second earner works 25 hours per week, and after this more hours of work makes them worse off).

What should we take from this?

The first point concerns how this problem is interpreted by different parts of the political spectrum. It says something about today’s politics that some on the Tory right (in contrast to a few modernising Conservatives) react to it by saying that the trouble is too much state involvement, and the answer is to liberate families by ending direct childcare support replacing it with tax allowances for those with children.  It’s hard to know where to start on this: for many low and middle income families the cost of childcare is so much greater than any plausible increase in tax allowances that this would  without  doubt consign the second earner, overwhelmingly the woman, to staying at home (leading to an immediate hit to living standards and a permanent loss in earnings potential); lots of those who are low paid and work part-time don’t pay any income tax so would gain zilch from these tax allowances; and in any case many low income working households would see the majority of the gains from tax allowances immediately withdrawn under Universal Credit. The list goes on.

A more reasonable interpretation is that, despite the progress made since the early 2000s, our childcare system still falls far short of the type of support that would enable many working families to hold down two jobs. If Britain is to make strides in catching up with leading advanced economies in terms of female employment (never mind shifting gender roles) that urgently needs to be remedied. And if we care about childcare quality then one way or another it will mean spending more. We’re not going to deregulate our way to Scandinavia.

Second, and perhaps equally challenging for both left and right, is that relying heavily on a means-tested approach to supporting childcare has severe limitations. It necessarily results in punishing marginal tax rates for those on modest and middle incomes, as tax-credits get withdrawn.  So whilst for the foreseeable future there will be of course be a role for means-testing, any new support should be broadly shared rather than highly targeted.    

Third, none of this is revelatory. It’s known to leading people across the political parties. To varying degrees, they are already concerned about this issue. All are anxious that their showy empathy on family living standards is increasingly grating with a weary electorate. All are uneasy about their lack of cut-through policies particularly for working families. All nervously wonder whether another party may make the first move on this terrain, and if so how they would fund it in the context of austerity.  

True, it would be foolhardy to predict an upward bidding war on childcare given the sweeping scale of the cuts to come. But only a fool would think the best course of action is to stick with the current half-formed system of childcare when the case for building on it – not least in terms of employment - has never been stronger. Expect childcare to feature in 2015 like never before.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit