Ed Miliband at Labour's conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's family policy needs to move beyond just supporting mothers

We should actively encourage fathers and grandparents and ensure that they too have the social support to engage directly in the care of children.

For years, the backbone of Labour’s family policy has been to support mothers in their role as parents and to support them into work, in order to lift families out of poverty: a mix of parenting support programmes for mums and childcare. These are vital and always will be, but we have reached the limit of this approach. It is expensive and the money has run out. Jon Cruddas and Labour's Policy Review are looking at expanding this approach by looking for other resources in children’s lives – the social capital that is potentially available to children, such as fathers, grandparents, extended family and community.

Much research has been undertaken that shows the well-being and resilience of children is strongly linked to their stock of social capital: well connected children do better. They are surrounded by constantly available support in order to deal with both immediate difficulties and as they step into the worlds of work and of parenting.

On 6 March, Labour’s Policy Review organised a symposium on family policy and assembled a number of radical thinkers to come up with ideas about this "whole family" approach to policy making. Shadow ministers Lucy Powell, Lisa Nandy and Liz Kendall were involved and David Lammy and Harriet Harman also spoke.

If social capital, rather than just money, is going to be a resource we depend on, then that requires a pretty major development in our perspective. First, we must see families as more than only mothers caring for babies and children. And second, we have to look at how all those who also have parental roles – including fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers - support each other in families.

The singular maternal approach to parenting that is considered the norm has been shown to be a short-term historical blip dating back to the Industrial Revolution. Human parenting has been characterised for the vast majority of human history as a highly collective activity, where mothers have shared the care of infants, from day one, with a wider family group, often, but not always, including men. All members of the human family have evolved to fit this pattern of care. Mothers depend on substantial support, particularly in the first years of a child’s life. Fathers undergo hormonal changes when close to pregnant mothers and babies and these trigger patterns of caring behavior and a desire to stay closer to the children. And most importantly, babies have evolved to need and thrive on multiple attachments within a family group, the foundation for their future existence in a social world. Babies are remarkably good at reading individuals in their families and the relationships between them.

Support programmes for families have consistently been shown to be more effective when they engage with not just one carer, but with the caring group. The world’s leading researchers in this field, Phil & Carolyn Cowan, are currently working with Family Action and the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships to demonstrate that support for families specifically focusing on the quality of the couple relationship gets better outcomes. That’s because it works along the grain of how our parenting has evolved.

The way we parent changes depending on our environment and has always done. With the education of women making women vital to our economy, with the lack of war that takes men out of households, with the internet again breaking down the division between work and home, with fathers routinely attending the birth of babies and undergoing a much stronger bonding experience, we are entering a new era of family life. Families are changing and policy must do its best to catch up.

Over the last 30 years, the focus of building social capital has been the creation of networks of mothers that operate outside families. This has been right and will continue so long as mothers are deprived of the considerable support they need within the family during the early years. But as Jon Cruddas has made clear, we must widen this approach and actively encourage fathers (and grandfathers) and ensure that they too have the social support to engage directly in the care of children. As David Lammy has pointed out, we need much higher expectations of men when it comes to looking after children. We need to start thinking "Mums and Dads" instead of just "Mumsnet" or "Netmums".

We need to start at the beginning, in maternity care. I presented a project in Liverpool Women’s Hospital, Maternity Assist, where a digital extension of local maternity care is being developed that defaults to engaging with fathers and other family members – mothers can nominate as many key supporters as they wish to receive information and advice from the maternity service. Parenting support programmes should engage with the parenting group, not just a "primary carer" because that gets a better result.

At the heart of the matter is child development, which is the foundation of Labour’s Policy Review on families. We know that attachment between child and adults is the key to child wellbeing, influencing how the brain develops. We have to learn how multiple attachments work for babies and how a child’s relationship with different people in the family depends substantially on how the group operates and on the health of other relationships within the group. The idea of a "primary attachment" that needs supporting, and then "secondary" and other "lesser" attachments being left to look after themselves, is a profound misunderstanding of how things work in a collective environment. The relationships (in the plural) that a baby and child forms with close carers form the essence of their humanity. We need to support and build these. And not just because we have run out of money, which happens to be the case, but because that is the best thing we can do for our children in the 21st century.

Duncan Fisher is the co-founder of the Fatherhood Institute 

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition