Family breakdown and the riots: Diane Abbott

Single mothers need support, not lectures.

The smoke is clearing from our inner cities. Hundreds of young people have been shovelled through our criminal justice system with scarcely a nod to due process. The political elite, however, believe that they have discovered the underlying reasons for the riots: family breakdown and the moral failure of the poor.

It is easy to see why pontificating about the family is irresistible for politicians. It is convenient for the government, because it deflects attention from its responsibility for maintaining public order and the part its policies played in the recent disorder. It is convenient for those on the right of the Labour Party: erstwhile Blairites would rather not talk about the widening inequality that scarred the New Labour years. It enables Blue Labour to climb out of its coffin and peddle banalities. Blaming moral failure for the condition of the poor is a tradition of the British political elite that goes all the way back to the Victorians.

The public is right to be wary of politicians and the chattering classes talking about things that they cannot affect, while swerving away from those things on which they could have an immediate impact. Since the Second World War, fewer and fewer people have been getting legally married. There is no evidence that changes in taxation or exhortations by politicians will have any effect on this long-term trend. The social and economic emancipation of women has also had a transforming effect on relationships within the family. This does not necessarily mean worse family arrangements - but it does mean that they will be different.

In any event, inner-city single mums could be forgiven for being cynical about the way in which some Labour politicians have taken up the family as an issue. When New Labour cut child benefit for single parents and insisted that the best route out of poverty was for mums to go out to work, these apostles of the family were nowhere to be seen.

Then, some of us argued that poor mothers might be better off being at home when their children came back from school, rather than out stacking supermarket shelves for the minimum wage. We refused to vote for the cuts. For our pains, we were abused and threatened with expulsion from the party. Now, the same politicians who supported New Labour's attempts to drive single mothers out to work are wringing their hands about family breakdown.

There is an interesting debate to be had about the family, and the feminist movement has been having it for a generation. Churches, faith groups, philosophers of all religions and none; all have established positions on the issue, which should be part of the public debate. The left urgently needs to stand up to the implicit racism of much of the commentary on the riots, offer strong resistance to the idea of bringing in the army to manage this kind of disorder and defend civil liberties. These are difficult positions and not necessarily popular. Yet all of these are more relevant to a harassed, black, single mother on a council estate than the pontifications of the white, male luminaries of Blue Labour about her lack of parenting skills.

Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Labour)

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