David Cameron's great childcare con

This isn’t just bad news for parents and children, it’s bad news for the economy too, says Sharon Hodgson.

Today’s coverage of David Cameron’s childcare policies has illustrated how out of touch this Government is. While they give tax cuts to those at the top, they have totally failed to support hardworking families with the cost of childcare.

As one mother, who works from home as a childminder, put it: “I remain unconvinced that it does anything for the typical working/lower middle class family”.

She is right. According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, 900,000 low income working families will not benefit from David Cameron’s childcare vouchers.

And of course no-one will get any help until 2015. There has been nothing for families in five years from this Government, while costs continue to rise and wages stagnate. And of course when it comes to living standards, hardworking parents have already seen their family budgets squeezed.

Working parents with two children have already lost £1,500 a year from the cut in childcare tax credits. Added to that, many mums have lost hundreds of pounds because of cuts to maternity pay, child benefit and pregnancy grants.

By the next election, George Osborne will have taken a total of £15 billion out of parents’ pockets.

All this is happening while costs continue to spiral. Childcare costs are rising faster than wages. A parent buying 50 hours of childcare per week for a child under two now faces an annual bill of nearly £11,000 per year or £14,000 per year in London. That’s the equivalent of a second mortgage.

And yet provision is getting patchier. Unbelievably, there are now 5,000 fewer childcare places since last year, as nurseries close down and childminders go out of business.

And many nurseries and children’s centres are charging top up fees for services that used to be free, pricing yet more hardworking families out of the labour market.

This isn’t just bad news for parents and children, it’s bad news for the economy too.

Labour want to ensure parents are able to go back to work if they want to. That’s why we’re looking to countries in Scandinavia who provide stronger support for childcare and where female unemployment is lower.

But this Government has made it more difficult for new mums to return to their job.

An Aviva survey found that 32,000 women left the workforce in one year since summer 2010 due to high costs of childcare making it more cost-effective to stay at home.

The summer holidays are a particularly tricky time for working parents. Those who can’t afford a private nanny or nursery are often forced to take time off work or rely on help from friends or families.

Labour was working to address this in Government. We tripled the number of holiday childcare places, but in their first year this Government cut 10,000 of those places, and have slashed the budget for holiday childcare by 40% so far.

There’s no doubt that childcare costs are one of the biggest drivers of living standards. The trouble is that hardworking parents have seen their income squeezed since the last election.

Only David Cameron could be so out of touch to think parents will be grateful for some help in 2015, when they’ve already seen their childcare support cut.

Sharon Hodgson MP is Labour’s Shadow Children’s Minister

David Cameron visits a school. Photo: Getty
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide