Family breakdown and the riots: Frank Field

A stable family is key in a child's early years.

The Labour movement grew in strength as it was nurtured by two driving principles. The first was that working people could collectively improve their pay and working conditions and, through a political party, change their country. The second centred on a belief that, in building strong families, they would improve the quality of their lives, irrespective of the wider forces around them. Here was the basis of the great march towards a respectable society, in which children were brought up on the principle of tough love. Clear boundaries were set, but within those boundaries children were loved and nurtured. The impact of Labour's success can be seen in many ways, not least in the falling crime rates from the period between the closing decades of the 19th century to around 1960.

In the early postwar years, however, Britain began to return to its historic norm of widespread, low-level barbarism. One sign of this is the escalated crime rate. For example, in many of our constituencies, there are now more violent crimes than there were 100 years ago in the whole country.
For a number of reasons, the tough-love approach to parenting has been undermined, at a time when neuroscience is spelling out the importance of the first few years of a child's life to the character of the adult who will emerge and whether he or she can empathise with other people. Good parenting, which ideally requires two involved parents, with additional support from grandparents, can trump poverty by expanding a child's life chances. Poor Chinese children outperform all other children except rich Chinese children.

We can see the collapse of the working-class-initiated tough-love model of parenting when children are presented for their first day at school. In extreme cases, they do not even know their name, while others recognise it only when it is shouted at them. Some children cannot sit still, see a pencil as a stabbing tool, cannot take off their coat and shoes and put them back on and are not potty-trained. Primary school teachers report that more, not fewer, children are being presented on their first day of school failing to meet the basic requirements of school-readiness.

The Labour leadership's proclamations that the shape of families doesn't matter has played a part in this social collapse. It is something that many women of the working and lower middle classes resent, women who increasingly see combining a job with a stable family as the source of their greatest happiness. The decline in support for Labour among these two groups that were turned off by our rhetoric helps to explain the huge loss of Labour votes since 1997.

Young people want their schools to teach them, through the National curriculum, how to be good parents. They have high aspirations for the children they will one day have, but they don't expect to be able to achieve these aspirations. Labour's social rethink must involve the question of how we should put stable families centre stage of our aspirations, while pursuing an economic strategy which will ensure that the aspirations that tomorrow's parents have for their children can be realised.

Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead (Labour) and led the 2010 Review on Poverty and Life Chances, commissioned by David Cameron

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