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

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.