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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.

Ed Miliband with his wife Justine Thornton and his two children.
Ed Miliband with his wife Justine Thornton and his two children. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.