David Cameron's "women problem" may intensify as Labour plans to double paternity leave

Ed Miliband's latest pledge on paternity leave will be popular with parents and families – and could exacerbate the Tories' lack of appeal to women voters.

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Another week, another step closer to the election, another promise.

This time it's Ed Miliband with a speech today proposing to double paid paternity leave from two to four weeks. He will say this plan is designed to help "modern British families" who are "frustrated by outdated laws and entitlements".

His pledge is to give fathers four weeks' paid leave of at least £260 a week (the equivalent of a 40-hour week on minimum wage), up from the current allowance of £138.

The Labour leader will say:

At the same time as women are under pressure in their careers, more fathers want to play a hands-on role in childcare, particularly in those first crucial weeks of a child's life.

Thanks to the last Labour government, fathers have two weeks' paid paternity leave. Millions of families have benefited with parents saying this has helped them support each other, share caring responsibilities and bond with their children.

But the money isn't great and too many Dads don't take up their rights because they feel they have to go back so they can provide for their family.

He says that he will pay for the £150m policy with a fall in the tax credits bill as families receive more childcare.

Although businesses have grumbled, as they did when maternity leave was extended, this is a shrewd policy move by Miliband. As was made clear by polling published at the beginning of this month, David Cameron's party and priorities are nowhere near as popular among women voters, particularly mothers. When it comes to mothers, the Tories are 20 points behind Labour; 28 per cent of mothers with children under 18 plan to vote Conservative, compared with 48 per cent for Labour.

So with a doubling of paternity leave, Labour is sure to hold its popularity with mothers (who will benefit from this policy), and broaden its appeal to fathers. Overall, if Miliband steals a march on the Tories' traditional value of being the party of the family unit, then this could be a huge help for him in May.

There is also an indication here of who is influencing Miliband's manifesto behind the scenes. It's highly likely that this policy was put on the table by Lucy Powell, the former shadow childcare minister and now Miliband's election chief. When she was in her previous brief last year, she told me

I think there’s a new kind of underclass in the workplace really, which is dads, who are half as likely as mums to ask for flexible leave, and are half as likely again to get that flexible leave accepted. So I think there’s growing resentment amongst younger, a new generation, of dads, about them being able to spend sufficient time with their families as well as having a successful career.

It will also please Labour MPs who are more to the right of the party, such as David Lammy, who occasionally feel that men (fathers especially) have been slightly overlooked by policy-makers of all sides of the House in recent years. 

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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