David Cameron with Samantha Cameron at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

What has my relationship status got to do with my tax code?

The Married Couple's Tax Allowance shows that the Tories don't just believe in the deserving and undeserving poor, but in the deserving and undeserving family.

Memorable and moving encounters with constituents often inform MPs' contributions to debates. I frequently draw upon them. During the 2010 general election campaign, I knocked on the door of a single mother who had recently left her husband because he had been violent towards her. She and her two sons were living with her mum. The father was making no financial contribution so she was working hard and her mother was helping out with childcare. This mum was angry and upset. She told me how hard she and her mother were trying to give her children a good life and to bring them up to be respectful and to work hard at school. She had heard on the news that morning that the Tories were promising a tax cut for married couples. She wanted to know what she had done wrong, why she didn't deserve the same break and if David Cameron expected or wanted her to stay in that relationship.

I remembered that mother yesterday as the House of Commons debated Labour's amendment to the Married Couple's Tax Allowance. As I listened to the debate, I felt like I had travelled back in time to the 1980s when I was a school governor in Oxfordshire. School boards had just been given the power to establish sexuality education policy. I suppose it was inevitable that in a Church of England village primary school all those years ago, this led to a vigorous debate about relationships and families. I didn't win the argument to adopt a policy which saw homosexual relationships and different kinds of family as equal. With the abolition of Section 28, equalisation of the age of consent, and same sex marriage legislation, I thought that times had changed. My argument had in time been won.

However, as we debated the tax allowance, I lost the argument all over again. I heard the same kind of language and views that I had heard in that school board almost 30 years ago; I realise that the Tories believe in the deserving and undeserving poor, but it is now clear that they also believe in the deserving and undeserving family

Speaker after speaker on the government benches spoke about families and how this policy was designed to help families. That is not what this policy does. Unless you are truly of a different time, you recognise that families come in different forms. Even this tax cut offers equal treatment to same sex marriages and civil partnerships. It was a strange experience to hear Tories who had voted against equal marriage standing up for tax breaks for couples they didn't think had the right to marry.

That wasn't the only illogical case advanced by Tory MPs. They declared that married parents of poorer families are more likely to stay together. I am sorry if this sounds flippant, but that doesn't sound like an argument for giving them more money. We had Tory after Tory proclaiming that children, adults and even grandparents have better outcomes when marriage works. They confused correlations with causation and failed to make the link as to why these outcomes of marriage should result in a tax cut, Surely these people feel blessed enough and would rather, in a time of austerity, that the state used its resources to help those in greater need.

There was much talk of families in this debate - Tim Loughton MP referred to what "these families deserve".  This is just one example of the government being careless and potentially offensive in the way they framed this debate.  He and his colleagues were not speaking about helping families; they were talking about helping married couples with children. Unless they believe theirs is the only definition of a family. Just as oranges are not the only fruit, married couples with children are not the only families. Even then, their offer will only reach one third of married couples.

That is not my real problem with this tax policy, nor is the objection raised by many that widows, widowers, people who have left abusive relationships, kinship carers and many others would miss out. I don't want to talk about deserving and undeserving single parent families either. That is the politics of division - the politics of this Tory/Lib Dem government. It is none of my business if someone asks for my help, what their relationship status is, neither is it the business of government or HMRC. A parent raising a family on their own deserves our support if they want and need it. That should not be conditional on whether they were the "guilty" party in the breakup of a relationship, or if they were ever in a relationship, because we all have a stake in helping every family raise healthy, happy and useful citizens.

I am going to do it again, what young people describe as "oversharing". When my marriage of 23 years ended, it was a traumatic and upsetting experience. In many ways it was like bereavement, with a destructive helping of shame and guilt and, for afters, the strain of trying to support and reassure our four children. A tax break wouldn't have saved my marriage and when I was giving myself a hard time for having failed at the most important relationship of my adult life, I didn't need a letter from HMRC telling me that my tax code was going to change.

I, and their father, spent more than two decades doing our best to provide for my four children, to guide and support them in the hope they would become useful and caring members of society. My sons and daughter are now making families of their own. It makes me beyond happy to see that having children is something they want to do and how well they are doing it. I do my best not to interfere in their lives now they are grown, to accept them for the people they have become and the choices they have made. It is none of my business if they have chosen to marry or not to marry and it certainly is none of the business of this government.

Fiona O'Donnell is Labour MP for East Lothian

Fiona O'Donnell is Labour MP for East Lothian

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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