Yorkshire Shepherdess serves lunch to two of her daughters at their farm on April 15, 2014 near Kirkby. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour needs to use family policy to support and strengthen relationships

There are not purely economic answers to the problems families face. Poverty and social disadvantage are linked to emotional health.

The recent Labour policy review symposium outlined a new and compelling narrative for family policy. Family policy is currently a hodgepodge of issues – it means very different things to different people and its preoccupations change in relation to current concerns, pressures and media attention. For the coalition government, and to some extent the Labour Party, current family policy can seem to be all about childcare. In earlier times, it has focused on maternity rights or parenting. Quite often, it becomes equated with a popular, media friendly issue such as the current cross-party concerns about the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.

These are undoubtedly important issues but focusing so narrowly has meant policymakers have failed to address what is often the core concern of most families. This is a simple but absolutely vital thing - their relationships with one another.

If Labour forms the next government in 2015, it will be governing a stressed and anxious population. The impact of six years of falling living standards will become more evident.  There are already signs that we are going to see a sharp increase in divorce and separation as we move out of the worst of the economic decline. Having struggled unhappily through the tough years, couples wait the recession out and then, when circumstances improve, separate.  The OECD figures on UK childrens' wellbeing, which had improved, will, I suspect, begin to fall again as the delayed impact of the recession hits the next generation.

But whilst it would be foolish not to recognise the impact on families of economic stress, it is also now time to acknowledge that there are not purely economic answers to these problems – a new perspective on family and social life is needed if we are to make radical improvements in our wellbeing.

The quality of relationships within a family is the single most important factor in whether a family thrives or not.  Of course financial worries cannot be overlooked, but however good the material circumstances of families, if the relationships are poor, things go awry for both adults and their children. They also go awry for the state; the cost of family breakdown and poor relationships is an enormous drain on the public purse, impacting on everything from adult and child mental health to heart disease and childhood obesity. The Relationships Foundation has calculated that the cost of family breakdown amounts to as much as £46bn each year.

The last Labour government largely treated social problems associated with poverty as if they only arose because of economic disadvantage and social exclusion; the priority was to increase the pound in the pocket of the poor. With fewer pounds to distribute, policymakers, such as Jon Cruddas, are thinking more broadly; addressing the complex inter-relationship between poverty and social problems. There is a new narrative being developed, which calls for policies that include a relational approach to social policy and that recognise that poverty and social disadvantage are not only linked to economic  difficulties but also to emotional health.

Emotional health and the strength of people’s relationships, whether these be intimate or familial or within communities is closely correlated. If governments fail to create the conditions that promote nurturing families, the capacity for healthy interpersonal relationships is harmed. This has political as well as personal consequences because good relationships are fundamental to the development of communities based on reciprocity, tolerance and cooperation.

Family policy should now focus on supporting and strengthening the quality of family relationships, increasing family resilience and the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Central to this must be to offer support for adult relationships, so that we can now build a vision of marriage and adult partnering that is democratic and inclusive. Families need to be able to access this support whatever their make-up or size.

It is no longer credible in the 21st century to think that a good society can be achieved without thinking about how people psychologically flourish and thrive  – we now have enough evidence to understand how the emotional health of a family is intrinsically linked to children’s long-term outcomes. And we know that a secure, loving family environment is crucial for the psychological health which enables both children and adults to make best use of the opportunities that are presented to them.

Family policy must aim to build emotional health and resilience in families and this is a long-term project. Real outcomes cannot be achieved within the five year electoral cycle, which is why supporting strong family relationships needs to be a cross-party agenda with a focus on early intervention at the heart of it. To make this fundamental shift in thinking, we need to start by putting family policy right up the political agenda. One way to do this would be to put a Minister for Families into the cabinet to coordinate policy and promote change.

Susanna Abse is a couple psychotherapist and CEO of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships

Coders for Corbyn
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Can emojis win elections?

Jeremy Corbyn has claimed his campaign's use of technology would be the "path to victory" in 2020. But can emojis play a meaningful part? 

When photographic campaign badges were first unleashed in 1860, a Facebook commenter posted on Abraham Lincoln’s wall: “What is this? Today’s youth are doomed” and then, a moment later, “You call this news?”*

It might be tempting to react in a similar way to the fact that Jeremy Corbyn emoji – or rather, Jeremoji – are now a thing. Small digital stickers of the flat-capped Labour leader expressing joy and sadness might seem like the End Of Serious Political Campaigning As We Know It, but are they really that different from the multitude of deft and daft political campaign buttons throughout history?

Well, yes. Because there will be a marrow.

Beyond the marrow, however, Jeremoji aren’t actually that revolutionary. Before Kim Kardashian crashed the App Store with the 9,000 downloads a second of her Kimoji in December 2015, we here at the New Statesman created a much-needed Yvette Cooper emoji. Around the same time, Bernie Sanders supporters released BerniemojiThe slightly-less pleasing to the ear Hillarymoji were also unveiled by Hillary Clinton campaigners two months ago, though none of these apps were officially endorsed by their respective candidates.

“We’re not affiliated, we’re totally independent,” says Gregory Dash from Coders for Corbyn, the group behind Jeremoji, and a wider online volunteer toolkit for Corbyn supporters. “A lot of us have social links with the campaign and we ran ideas past them and got feedback but as an organisation we’re totally independent and all volunteers.”

Dash reveals that a variety of professional and amateur artists contributed to the emoji and that unfortunately, as the marrow design is currently being finalised, it won’t be in the first version of the app. Once the app has been approved by Google Play and the App Store, it should be available to the public in the coming weeks.

“Mainly they’re just fun but we’re also hoping we’ll be able to communicate some of the main message of Jeremy’s campaign,” says Dash.

But are Dash and other developers misguided in their attempts to promote sexagenarian politicians via a communication tool favoured by teens? Hillary Clinton has already been mocked for her attempts to capture the youth vote via memes, and has proven on multiple occasions that trying to be “down with the kids” can backfire. Corbyn’s own digital manifesto was met with scorn by some yesterday.

“To be very honest, the emojis are pretty cringy,” says Max Rutter, a 17-year-old from Oxford. “I know that they are targeted towards teens but politics isn't something most teens talk about on social media, and these emojis could only be used in a political conversation. Corbyn doesn't need emojis to get teens on his side, he just needs to stick to his guns and keep telling it like it is.”

A 2013 London School of Economics study on Youth Participation In Democratic Life supports Max’s assertions. The final report found that although in theory young people wanted politicians to use social media more, in practice it led to more negative perceptions of politicians and “an increased perception of the gap between political elites and the young.” Moreover, teens exposed to a social media campaign were less likely to vote than those who only received political flyers.

Jeremoji, then, may not ultimately capture the youth vote, and nor are they likely to make lifelong Conservatives pause and say, “On second thoughts, yes. This Corbyn chap is the man for me.” So what will they achieve?

“We’re hoping to do some emojis around Corbyn’s ten pledges and allow people to share them that way,” says Dash. The app already contains emojis affiliated with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, a society seeking justice for miners after the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984. Dash also hopes to get emojis supporting the No More Blacklisting campaign and Save Our Steel.

“We want to have it so you go to the Orgreave campaign and you click the emoji and it will give you a little bit of information about the campaign as well,” Dash says. “Emojis then become a tool to communicate all these different campaigns that are going on. There are amazing things going on that the wider Labour membership may not know about.”

Coders for Corbyn seek the approval of each of these campaigns before creating the emoji, as they don’t want to seem as if they’re exploiting campaigns to make themselves look better “like Owen Smith did”. But despite their current affiliation with Corbyn, the group plan to rebrand as Coders for Labour after the leadership election.

“I’m not sure there would be the same demand for Owen Smith emojis, but we'd definitely still be producing Labour themed emojis for people to use,” says Dash, when I ask what he’d do if Smith won.

Dash tells me when iOS10 launches in the autumn, emojis will be available at three times their current size, and will be more like stickers. This means they can communicate complicated messages from various campaigns, and may also lose any potential stigma associated with the word “emoji”. In the late 20th century, campaign buttons like Lincoln’s were replaced by cheaper disposable label stickers. It makes sense for these in turn to be replaced by digital stickers. Even if emoji can’t win elections, they may still prove powerful in raising awareness.

The UK’s currently most used emoji is the despairing crying face. Personally, I see no problem with it becoming a marrow.

*May not strictly be true 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.