Senior parliamentary and shadow cabinet figures say that Labour is increasingly split on its approach to the family. As the party prepares its response to the UK Riots Inquiry Panel, this conflict has been thrown into stark relief. It’s a case of serious family politics, and it cuts to the heart of what Labour is about.
Leading the old guard are the likes of Yvette Cooper who – perhaps understandably given her position as shadow home secretary – want Labour’s response to the riots to lead on police cuts. Harriet Harman is also in this camp, although she is keen to broaden the narrative out to youth unemployment and cuts to youth services.
Shadow cabinet member Diane Abbott didn’t want to comment on the splits, but she said that when it came to family life, “the majority of the shadow cabinet would rather park this issue.”
But she does not seem convinced that this is the right approach:
“Some of my colleagues are skeptical of Ian Duncan Smith’s family narrative and I share that up to a point. I’m a single mum… and don’t want to feel second class because of it… but we shouldn’t abandon talking about the family to the right and extremist religious nut jobs.”
Off the record, another parliamentary source went even further:
“We’ve got to do police but family is equally relevant, and if we don’t tackle that we will be out of touch. This is not just a post riots issue, it goes much deeper.”
We need to wait for the evidence before we can make a judgement on any relationship between riots and family life. But the need for a new and deeper narrative about families and relationships is something I wholeheartedly believe in. Because as a councillor, I have to deal with cases of family break down every day, but I don’t think Labour is getting it.
This week a fifteen-year-old told me that the first interaction he ever had with his dad was when he found him on Facebook.
The week before, a young guy nearly got glassed in a pub fight. His dad works as a local police officer, but said he wouldn’t come down because he “wasn’t on duty” that night.
What does Labour have to say about these cases?
At the moment the new Top Boy series resonates more with people than their political leaders.
These ideas are simmering in other parts of the party. Next week David Lammy MP is set to bring out his new book Out of the Ashes. It’s strictly embargoed, but we can expect a post-liberal narrative that deals with fatherhood and masculinity as much as resources and benefits. Lammy told me:
“Social liberalism has delivered huge gains for ethnic minorities and women, but it can’t answer everything. We may well need a more small c conservative response to bring the country together as more than individuals.”
Blue Labour sympathisers like Jon Cruddas MP have been pushing the party in this direction for a long time, as reiterated in his inaugural Attlee lecture a few weeks ago. With a new leader and an election three years away, there is growing pressure for Labour to change.
I understand the anxieties about speaking out. There is a worry that defending the family really means slating single parent homes. There is a concern that we’ll have to make value judgements about marriage or the role of women, or that we’ll offend liberal ideas about the role of the state. But there must be a better way of reframing this debate. If you want to hear about the family, why should you have to go to the Tories?
Yes Labour did some great things for families in material terms. Huge amounts. But we didn’t make the emotional link between polices and what mattered to people. We didn’t speak to people’s experience or values; we managed them in silence. It’s not enough to throw in the occasional dry reference to responsibility – we need to talk about honour, love, loyalty, fear and hate.
Ed Miliband gets this argument in intellectual terms. But it’s still unclear how far he’ll go to change the party line. We urgently need to find a way of doing that, because these are the realities people are living with. Fatherhood. Family. They matter to people. And after all the cuts, that guy’s dad is still working as a police officer, and his son hasn’t stopped fighting.
Rowenna Davis is the author of Tangled Up In Blue