Cameron is taking families back to the future - Labour will move them forwards

The PM has hit families with a triple childcare whammy of falling places, rising nursery costs and cuts to support. Labour will show there is another way.

The reports published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on family breadwinners and poverty are a wake-up call to a government hell bent on turning back the clock on child poverty and family opportunity.

The NatCen and IPPR reports for the JRF show the true depth and extent of those on the breadline, with many working families struggling to make ends meet as David Cameron’s cost of living crisis bites. The reports show that the risk of poverty is greater for children in couple families with one traditional breadwinner, with single-earner families comprising 30 per cent of the families with children in poverty in 2011/12. The reports show that 55 per cent of families in poverty have someone in work, a shocking indictment of a government allegedly committed to making work pay.

Under David Cameron many families are finding one income alone is not enough to balance family budgets at the end of each month. He has hit families with a childcare triple whammy of falling places, rising nursery costs (up six times more than wages last year) and cuts to support of up to £1,500 for some families. The JRF rightly highlight affordable, quality childcare as a key driver for tackling low maternal employment and boosting family income. Labour’s new agenda does just this.  

Labour in government made headway on these issues. The IFS has shown that during our time in office both absolute and relative poverty fell markedly. Increases in employment helped to raise family income alongside tax credits, the national minimum wage, support for childcare and investment in the early years.

David Cameron is taking us back to the future with prices rising faster than wages in 40 out of the 41 months he’s been in power. The Tory-led government is pushing families into poverty and many low paid women can only access poorly paid part-time jobs because of a lack of accessible and affordable childcare. Universal Credit will create further barriers to work for some second earner households and some women will actually pay to work if they increase their hours. Under Universal Credit, as soon as a second earner enters work, 65p of every £1 earned will be lost to withdrawn benefits. This could affect 900,000 potential second earners disincentivising work and perpetuating poverty and inequality.

Labour’s new agenda will make a difference for working families making work pay and helping parents balance work and family life. Giving parents a primary childcare guarantee to help them manage before and after school childcare will ease the logistical nightmare some face and give parents more flexibility to work. Labour will legislate so that parents can access childcare between the hours of 8am and 6pm through their local school. Extending the provision of free childcare for three and four year olds from 15 to 25 hours a week for working parents will help mums, and it is still mainly mums, to work part-time without having to worry about childcare costs. This is worth around £1,500 per child for hard pressed working families. Shared parental leave is important as well. It is crucial in giving women the choice and the chance to return to the same job and retain their earning potential, rather than taking time out of work after they have children which, for many, means they will never again have the same pay and status.

Affordable high-quality childcare, make work pay contracts for companies paying the living wage and better family-friendly policies are all part of the new agenda Labour is developing. Our new agenda is a sign of our intent for a better future for families and children.

Ed Miliband speaks to an audience on living standards at Battersea Power station on November 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lucy Powell is vice chair of Labour's general election campaign and shadow minister for the Cabinet Office.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.