If Cameron's marriage tax break is his answer, he's asking the wrong question

At a time when millions of people are facing a cost of living crisis we should be helping all families and not just some.

The Tory Party conference offers the chance for the Prime Minister to tell the country how he plans to solve the cost of living crisis. Yet, on the first day, we find out that his flagship policy doesn’t support the vast majority of families in this country struggling to pay the bills. If David Cameron’s so-called marriage tax break is his answer, then the Prime Minister is asking the wrong question.

For millions of people across the country, this announcement will seem perverse at a time of rising prices and falling wages. Two thirds of married couples won’t benefit at all. If both work on more than £10,000 a year, they will not be able to transfer their tax allowance and they won’t get any extra money. David Cameron's flagship policy is not for anyone who is separated, widowed or divorced.

A single mum, bringing up her children, working every available hour to pay the energy bills and provide a hot meal each night for her children will not benefit. The hard-pressed couple on low pay, juggling part-time work and childcare, will not see anything from David Cameron’s announcement. A one-earner family who live on £40,000 a year will gain, but a two-earner couple on £20,000 each won’t. If a man leaves his wife, leaving his children behind and remarrying, he would benefit from this policy, whilst the mother of his children would not.

It’s a policy which is about division and stigma - not the One Nation approach we need. Many parents will think David Cameron is telling them they are second class, not worthy of his support. But they are bringing up children too. We can’t simply forget about or leave behind the millions of parents who may not be married, but love their children and work tirelessly to provide for them.

Even for the few that benefit, they may very well wonder why they receive only £3.85 per week in recognition of the commitment they made to one another, whilst David Cameron gives £1,986 per week to the 13,000 people earning over £1 million pounds with his top rate of tax cut. It’s another policy which reveals David Cameron’s priorities - millionaires and not millions of families.

And this policy is another blow to David Cameron’s already feeble attempts to understand women. Mums have consistently lost out under this government. Child benefit and tax credits, payments that traditionally go to the mother, have all been heavily cut back. For many mums, this has been a real blow, making it harder for them to support their children and taking away independent income. This policy will not solve that problem, as it will usually be paid into their husband’s account. The Tories are taking a lot from the purse and putting a little bit back into the wallet.

Most families are already struggling with the cost of living crisis and the clobbering they have received from this Tory-led government. Energy bills are up and prices have risen faster than wages in 38 out of 39 months of David Cameron being in Downing Street. Families with children have been hardest hit by government policies already - losing £7bn in things like child benefit and tax credits.

At a time when millions of people are facing a cost of living crisis we should be helping all families and not just some. That's what Labour set out this week with plans to freeze energy bills and expand free childcare for working parents.

I am married and the day I walked down the aisle was one of the most important and happiest of my life. But when David Cameron says "Love is love. Commitment is commitment", he doesn’t mean this for everyone. In Cameron’s Britain, some people’s love and commitment - to their partner and to their children - simply don't count.

Rachel Reeves is Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

"David Cameron's flagship policy is not for anyone who is separated, widowed or divorced." Photograph: Getty Images.
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser