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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.