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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.