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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.