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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage