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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.