Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour's policy review. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How Labour will strengthen family life and relationships

We are developing a whole family approach to policy making that puts equality, relationships and mutual self-help at the centre of preventing social problems.

Today, Labour’s Policy Review is running a symposium on family life and relationships. In this period of austerity, we need to support families, and use the power of their relationships and the networks they create to help strengthen people’s capacity for resilience,  care, and good neighbourliness.

We are building on the pioneering work of women in the feminist movement and the Labour Party who, along with men like the late Malcolm Wicks, redefined family policy. It was their work that established childcare as a major political issue. Women’s aspirations for work and a career were pushed onto the economic and social policy agenda. Labour argued for longer maternity leave and higher maternity pay to protect women from having to go back to work too soon.

In the symposium, Harriet Harman will set out our good record in government. Our National Childcare Strategy included Childcare Tax Credit, funds to councils for childcare and Sure Start Centres.  We doubled maternity pay and maternity leave.  We introduced paternity leave for the first time and gave a right to request flexible working for those with family responsibilities. Labour took up feminist arguments for greater equality between men and women and they resulted in major gains for women and children.

Today, families come in different shapes and sizes but they are all under pressure from the cost of living crisis and the demands of care. Many are left feeling insecure and vulnerable. At the same time, family life is changing. In 1996, 71 per cent of families with dependent children were headed by a married couple, by 2008 it was 60 per cent. The expectations of men and women are changing too. Most men no longer earn enough to fulfil the traditional male role of family breadwinner. The norm is increasingly both parents earning. A third of all mothers with dependent children - over 2 million - now earn the majority share of household income.

We need a national conversation about family life and relationships which includes both men and women. The task is first to identify the social and economic forces that stop some mothers and fathers balancing work and family life and doing what they think is best for their children. And second to devise policy where these forces are amenable to change.

Family relationships are the bedrock of society. Children need good family relationships to develop feelings of safety and belonging, and to know they are worth being loved. Family relationships are also important for economic development. Inequality in the home limits women’s access to employment and opportunities and so has a negative impact not only on their own lives, but on the increase in productivity and tax revenue we need to build a better society.

Men want fulfilling home lives and women want fulfilling working lives, but policy still pushes mothers into the home and fathers into work. Our employment practices, public services and institutional arrangements treat men, women and children as if they exist in separate silos and not as part of a whole family.  Families thrive when there is a partnership and teamwork amongst adult relations. Policy needs to use the power of relationships to help strengthen the resilience of men, women and children to withstand adversity and to facilitate their readiness to take up opportunities. The best way of preventing social problems from developing is to support social, couple and family relationships.

Poor relationships in childhood leads to poorer employment outcomes, higher levels of unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, substance abuse, and over eating, and poorer mental health. Children who suffer poor parenting have a struggle in life. We know that poor attachment or traumas in childhood such as cruelty and domestic violence does long term damage to mental health. Children who have these bad experiences can grow up struggling to cope with life’s stresses and they can find it difficult to make good relationships. Over 30 per cent of young people under 25 suffer from one or more psychiatric illnesses: 1 million children and young people are mentally ill.

This is a very high cost to pay for the failure to deal with problems early in families and in a child’s life. We need to do more to support couples, and more to strengthen the bonds between parents and also between fathers and their children. By the time British children are 16, around half no longer live with their father and a third do not see him at all. We know that those who grow up with involved fathers do better than those who do not. Boys without fathers are more likely than their peers to be involved in crime, heavy drinking and drug use. And both boys and girls are more likely to have low educational attainment and suffer low self-esteem.

This government is wasting money on reactive high-cost services because it is failing to fix social problems earlier on. In contrast, Labour is developing a whole family approach to policy making that helps to build inter-dependence that is fair and maximises the care that children receive within the family and its networks. Helping people to help themselves, not abandoning them, is the best way to reduce dependence on services provided by the state.

Prioritising relationships means taking equality seriously. We will value a father’s family role as highly as his working role, and a woman’s working role as highly as her domestic one. Fathers are good for children and shared parenting is good for mothers. We will actively encourage women into work and actively encourage the involvement of fathers in the care, education and health of their children. We will do more to tackle  violence in the home, for example, with compulsory sex and relationships education in schools. 

The Policy Review is working alongside Ed Balls and Chris Leslie and their Zero-Based Spending Review to incorporate the principle of prevention into spending on public services. Investing in prevention in this context means reforming services to unlock the potential of relationships as powerful catalysts of change, alongside professional resources. Labour’s Local Government Innovation Task Force has published its first report setting out a framework for this approach.

The excellent Troubled Families programme run by Louise Casey through local councils is pioneering work of this kind. Greater Manchester’s scheme reports significant reductions in levels of anti-social behaviour, improvements in school attendance and reductions in exclusions and a five year saving of £88.7m against costs of £62m. Nottingham Council and local MP Graham Allen have championed the early intervention approach. Shifting the focus from crisis intervention with troubled children and families to building their capacities to make good relationships and break cycles of deprivation. The voluntary sector is innovating new approaches. For example,the Home Start project runs in local authorities across the country. It matches young single parents with experienced parents from their own community for practical help, and as a source of comfort and reassurance. 

Emotional life lies at the heart of the bonds that bind a society together and policy has to be attuned to it if we are to succeed in building a better society and solving some of our more complex and intractable social problems. Labour is developing a whole family approach to policy making that puts equality, relationships and mutual self-help at the centre of preventing social problems through early intervention. The politics of One Nation begins with family, offering the world equally to daughters, and teaching sons that courage in love and relationships is a sign of a man's strength.

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.