From the Tories' "feckless dads" to the "crisis in masculinity": can Labour go father?

Jon Cruddas and Diane Abbot have argued this week that Labour must value the roles that fathers play in modern families. But first, it must stop policies which disadvantage men.

This week Labour staked its claim to be the country’s most father-friendly political party.

Jon Cruddas, the party’s policy co-ordinator, claimed that “the Conservatives have dominated debate about the family with their stereotype of a feckless underclass of absent fathers”.

According to Cruddas, “the majority of men feel fathers are undervalued,” but not for much longer, because “Labour will value the role of fathers”.

His words were echoed by Diane Abbott who, in a separate speech on the “crisis of masculinity”, spoke of the party’s need “to say loudly and clearly, that there is a powerful role for fathers”.

But if Labour is to achieve its ambition of becoming  “the daddy” of all political parties, then it needs to understand why it has historically had an uneasy relationship with dads.

According to critics on the right, we need look no further than the IPPR report “Family Way”, co-authored by Harriet Harman in 1990, which said “it cannot be assumed that men are bound to be an asset to family life or that the presence of fathers in families is necessarily a means to social cohesion".

Criticism has also come from within the party with David Lammy warning that the “same liberals who fought so hard for single mothers now give the impression that fatherlessness does not matter at all”.

This analysis seems to have resonated with Abbott who wants her party to make families and fathers a priority and is emphasizing the importance of Labour feminists developing a positive narrative about the role of dads.

Abbot frames fatherhood as a gender issue, which is essential, as it is often Labour’s strong position on women and equality that restricts the party’s ability to support men and fathers.

Feminists have been cautious of prescribing what an ‘ideal family’ should be, whilst viewing the family as an ideal vehicle to deliver policies designed to support women. In the process, the left both responds to and re-enforces women’s role as carers and keeps fathers on the margins of parenting.

This process began with the postwar transfer of money from “wallet-to-purse” in the shape of child-tax allowances, a move that is said to have lost Labour votes among male workers in the late 1960s.

Today child benefit is still predominantly paid to women and acts as a “gateway benefit” that awards recipients the status of primary carer in the eyes of the state.

This is particularly problematic for separated fathers on low incomes who – having been identified as the secondary parent – cannot access any of the state benefits awarded to parents.

A benefit system that relegates dads to the role of secondary carer is a major barrier to women’s equality. The gender pay-gap is inextricably linked to the different parenting roles that men and women adopt. Single women are now paid more than single men with the gender pay gap emerging when a couple’s first child is born.

Pro-feminist fatherhood campaigners have long made the case that the countries which give mums and dads the most equal parental leave rights are the countries which tend to have the narrowest gender pay gap.

Despite this knowledge, the last Labour government introduced a maternity leave system that was described by the left-leaning Fatherhood Institute as a “major driver of gendered responsibility in earning and caring”.

According to Nick Clegg, these gendered rules on parental leave “patronise women and marginalise men” and are “based on a view of life in which mothers stay at home and fathers are the only breadwinners”.

Cruddas seems to agree, saying that policy pushes mothers into the home and fathers into work, but he fails to acknowledge that it was Labour who created that policy.

When the Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, Harriet Harman, said on Question Time in May: “I fought for maternity pay and leave for women whose husbands actually couldn’t afford for them to be staying at home off work”, there was no suggestion that this policy had a negative impact on mums and dads.

This instinctive belief that family policy is predominantly a women’s issue, is perhaps the biggest barrier to Labour’s ambition to be seen as the party that values fathers.

Earlier this year the Labour party responded to Coalition plans to make a real terms cut in maternity and paternity pay, with a campaign called “Mums Not Millionaires”.

The slogan fits perfectly with Labour’s narrative on women and equality, which has helped the party to secure 51% of the female vote in some polls, compared with just 36% of the male vote.

Gender equality – for both men and women – is a much harder story to sell, but if the left won’t champion equality for all, then who will?

Being an involved father is not only a great experience for men, it is a major contribution to the social wellbeing of the whole family. An analysis of 24 fatherhood studies by Sarkadi and colleagues (2008) found that involved fathers reduce behavioural problems in boys and psychological problems in young women, enhance children’s cognitive development, reduce criminality and help families to overcome poverty.

But while the involvement of fathers can reduce inequality, the unequal way we treat parents makes it harder for fathers to be involved.

Men as parents do not have an equal right or an equal opportunity to share parenting.  The legal rights of a parent, which are granted automatically to all mothers, are not automatically granted to unmarried fathers; parental leave entitlements are still not allocated in an equitable way and the problems faced by separated dads remain unresolved.

There is a political cost to treating fathers as equal parents as it means letting go of political narratives that aim to attract a perceived women’s vote.

There is also a benefit. In Sweden, where parenting policies treat fathers more equally, the gender pay gap is narrower and separated dads are three times more likely to share parenting than their British counterparts.

If Labour can take a lead by treating gender inequality as a game of two halves and acknowledge that the unequal treatment of fathers has been caused in part by its own policies – then maybe more men will start to believe that Labour could become a party that genuinely values fathers. 

Ed Miliband with his wife Justine Thornton and his two children. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.