If the Conservative Party is looking for a theme song that sums up its message for the next election, it could do worse than Beyoncé Knowles’s pop smash “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”.
The Tories have already made it clear that a return to marriage as the fundamental framework of socio-economic control is the aspirational core of the party’s ideology. Tuesday’s emergency Budget sent an uncompromising message to women who have the temerity to divorce or to remain unmarried: single ladies will pay heavy penalties, especially if they have children.
As well as excising the health-in-pregnancy grant and other rare, precious tokens of state support for mothers, the new Budget expressly delineates welfare penalties and work sanctions for single parents, nine out of every ten of whom are women. Single mothers will now be required to find a job in today’s shrivelled labour market as soon as their children are of school age, but as employers are under no obligation to pay a living wage that incorporates enough money to cover childcare, work itself will be no guarantee of a decent standard of living.
The changes to housing benefit — justified with solemn anecdotes about chav families living in castles that sounded a little like the Chancellor had muddled his notes with a copy of the Daily Mail — will also imperil lone-parent families, which are three times as likely to live in rented accommodation as families with two resident parents.
The charity Shelter has warned that the cuts will “push many households over the edge, triggering a spiral of debt, eviction and homelessness”.
The Tories may have sidelined their plans to recognise marriage in the tax system, but the cuts announced in the new Budget are far more disastrous for women’s rights than the crass symbolism of tax breaks for married couples, making it significantly more difficult for women to contemplate raising children without a man, any man, to offer the support that the new government takes moral exception at providing.
“Solutions” to poverty
Lisa Ansell, a single mother from London, explained that the new Budget may destroy her chances of building a stable home for herself and her three-year-old daughter. “I have worked all my life, and done everything right, but the VAT hike and housing benefit cuts mean I’m sitting here with a calculator wondering how I’m supposed to survive,” she said.
“This attack on single mothers is directly in line with Conservative rhetoric about encouraging marriage,” Ansell said. “If the only way for a poor woman to get out of poverty is a man, that has serious consequences for people like me and my daughter.”
Like many lone parents, Ansell was relying on a job in the public sector to support her family, but after a freeze on recruitment in preparation for the cuts announced last week, the work she had lined up has disappeared.
“I am an intelligent woman and a good mother, but on Budget day, I woke up to find that I am society’s garbage,” she said. “If the new government feels that any woman who has a child with a man should be left in poverty if she separates from him, with a new sexual relationship her only route out, then it should just say so.”
David Willetts MP, who is to sit on a new task force for children and families, articulates the Conservative attitude to women and the state with icy clarity in his recent book The Pinch. Lamenting the rise in divorce and praising marriage as a solution to poverty, Willetts complains: “A welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is being slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men.”
A green paper on “the family”, released in January by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, suggested that lone parenthood is responsible for “fracturing British society”, and that governments should send a clear signal that “families matter”.
Unfortunately for millions of parents, partners and children in Britain, only certain families truly matter to the Conservative Party. The entire premise of the Tory marital fetish is that “families” are not just any old riff-raff who love one other and are committed to each other’s well-being: the proper form of the family in Conservative Britain is a rigid economic arrangement involving two married, cohabiting parents, preferably owning property and drawing as little state support as possible. Only 37 per cent of the population enjoy this sort of “traditional” arrangement, but Tory social policy has rarely taken the reality of working people’s lives into account when imposing its diktats.
One does not need to be a socialist feminist to understand that the history of women’s liberation has always been about economics. Indeed, after suffrage was achieved, the key victories of the women’s movement in the 1970s involved the fight to allow women and children to be financially independent of men should the need arise.
The hypocrisy of the Tory family fetish, which rewards married, middle-class women for staying at home with their children while demonising poor, single women for doing the same, should remind the British left that even the most fundamental of progressive reforms can be reversed unless progressives remain vigilant. Contemporary Conservative policy on “the family” encodes a cold, reactionary moral agenda in the rhetoric of “allowing people real choice over their lives”.
But this Budget threatens women’s hard-won freedom to make important choices for themselves and their families: the choice to leave an unsuitable or violent partner without facing financial ruin; the choice to remain unmarried; the choice to live a dignified life independent of men, whether or not we have children. These choices are fundamental to women’s rights. They are not optional extras that can be trimmed from the Budget whenever the nation feels the pinch; they are core provisions for female security in an unjust, patriarchal world, and they are priceless.
This Budget is not merely a repulsive moral assault on single mothers. It is a direct threat to all women who believe that our futures should not depend on the ability to catch and keep a man. The coalition has claimed that the cuts announced on Tuesday are “unavoidable”, but the new Budget looks anything but reactive: it looks, among other things, like a concerted attack on women’s hard-won freedoms, an attack based, in Harriet Harman’s words, on ideology rather than economics.