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After Labour's offer, the political battle on childcare has heated up

The party needs to show how new 'guarantees' will be delivered. If not, the Tories, with their offer of more money in parents’ pockets, could win the all-important female vote.

Chancellor George Osborne during a visit to a nursery in Hammersmith on August 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Earlier this week, Labour retook the initiative on childcare with the announcement of a major extension in free care for three-and-four-year-olds. Having been the party that established childcare as a new frontier of the welfare state when in government, Labour’s lack of a clear policy direction over the last year had left room for the coalition to creep in with its proposals. A YouGov poll for the Resolution Foundation conducted before the announcement revealed that even Labour supporters felt that the Lib Dems had better ideas on childcare than their own party. But Labour has come back with force. Will its ideas on childcare help it reclaim the all important women’s vote – a major battle ground at the next election? And will the Tories try to reclaim the initiative next week in Manchester?

Children aged three and four are currently entitled to 15 hours of free early education and care. Labour's plan would extend that free entitlement by a further 10 hours for families with working parents. One of the central complaints about the existing free entitlement is that it is just too short to help second earners – usually mothers - to work part-time. This is because when it was introduced it was designed around child development not the labour market. But with living standards now the dominant issue for all political parties, the extension to 25 hours is intended to make a part-time job possible.

Labour also set out a bold offer for parents of primary age children – a guarantee of childcare before and after school. While childcare for under-fives is more expensive, parents of older children struggle with the mismatch between the school day and the working day. Unless childcare can be easily wrapped around the school day, keeping a job can be a challenge.

Despite a decade of investment by government, the cost of childcare is still a major issue for families. A poll of 1,000 users of the parents’ website Mumsnet for the Resolution Foundation in advance of Labour conference found that nearly half of all respondents said that they found it more difficult to manage the costs of childcare in the past year compared to only one in 10 who thought the situation had improved. In fact, those who can are increasingly relying on grandparents or other types of informal care to reduce their childcare bill.

More free hours of childcare, as Labour has proposed, will definitely help to make work pay, particularly for lower-earning women for whom the costs of childcare eat up a large chunk of every extra pound they earn. The extension of the free entitlement and the guarantee for older children are also clearly distinct from the coalition’s current proposal announced at this year’s budget to create a new childcare voucher for better-off parents. The coalition has chosen to put more money in parents’ pockets; Labour to ensure more free provision is available.

With competing proposals in place, there is a lot to play for politically. When asked which of the parties has the best ideas on childcare, four in ten Mumsnet survey respondents said "none of them" and almost as many (38 per cent) answered "don’t know". Only 11 per cent named Labour and four per cent both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as having the best ideas on childcare.

If Labour can deliver on its announcements and communicate them to parents, it has a clear opportunity to win over the undecided majority. Here the concept of a 'guarantee' is a useful approach. But it will only work in Labour’s favour if parents can get the childcare to which they are entitled. This is where the risk lies for Labour. There are long-standing problems with access to the existing 15 hours entitlement because it is underfunded. Labour needs to ensure that any new entitlements and 'guarantees' can be delivered. If not, the Tories, with their offer of more money in parents’ pockets could grab the all-important female vote.