Family breakdown and the riots: Ruth Lister

Two-parent households aren't always best.

The words "family values" are typically used as shorthand for valorising a particular form of family: the old-fashioned, stable, married, heterosexual, two-parent family. Such families are then associated with commitment and strong parenting. The breakdown of these family values is at the heart of the right's "broken Britain" thesis, which, in the eyes of its supporters, has been vindicated by the riots.

If this is what we mean by family values, then no, the left doesn't "get" them. Nor should we. The evidence does not support the thesis that changing family forms signal a loss of commitment within family relationships, or that differences in the socio-emotional development and well-being of children are attributable to marriage or coupledom per se. Don't point the finger at family structure.

Let us avoid false dichotomies. It would be fatuous to deny that families and parenting are probably part of the nexus of the riots' underlying causes. Yet agency, as expressed through behaviour, is shaped by socio-economic structure and culture (which is not to plead them as excuses for the riots). Parenting, therefore, cannot be divorced from the socio-economic factors that those on the left tend to highlight.

Parents and Children in the Inner City (1978), a study of the subject by Harriett Wilson and G W Herbert, had a big impact on my understanding. It demonstrated how the stress associated with poverty and the survival strategies adopted by parents to cope can undermine parental capacity. Subsequent research has reinforced the message and provided further evidence of the stress created by parenting in poverty, particularly on mothers.

Since Wilson's and Herbert's study, inequality has widened sharply - suggesting a "fractured" rather than a "broken" Britain - and turbo-consumerism has infected the culture within which low-income parents struggle to raise their children. Moreover, as a result of modern communications and celebrity culture, the deprived are more aware of what they lack in our materialist society. When children and young people with experience of poverty can be bullied for having the wrong trainers or lacking the right consumer goods, is it so surprising that they grab them when they can?

All of this means that old-fashioned family values represent a regressive blind alley for the left. We should be forging a more progressive form of family life, drawing on feminist thinking about an ethic of care. Such an ethic starts with the question of how we can best provide care and support for each other at every level of society, in recognition of human interdependence. It challenges the dominance of the paid-work ethic, which squeezes out the time to care. This means, for example, addressing the competing responsibilities placed by the government on lone mothers to undertake paid work, be involved in their children's education and keep their children out of trouble. An ethic of care reasserts the importance of how we live together over what we consume.

So, what the left should "get" is family values based on an ethic of care and underpinned by one of justice, which enshrines the value of equality.

Ruth Lister is a Labour peer and emeritus professor of social policy at Loughborough University

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This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?