Our deepest worries and brightest joys stem from our families. But no British government has yet learned to place the British family at the forefront of its concerns. Little wonder there is such a gulf between Westminster and the wider country.
We have received rival blueprints for rule from the three main parties, and all three have evidently been told by their focus groups to pepper their manifestos with the magic word – “families.” But have they truly managed to put family friendly policies at the heart of their plans?
Worry over heavy financial burdens stemming from personal elderly care runs deep for British families. Last month the Family and Parenting Institute conducted a Populus poll which revealed that elder care costs – not childcare costs – are the bigger concern.
The public is again ahead of the political debate and the three manifestos feel like the beginning of a political conversation rather than a full response. Voters will be left scratching their heads and wondering whether any of the proposed plans really address the scale or cost of care.
The Conservative manifesto comes out particularly strongly on the issue of the commercialisation of childhood. Parents tell us that they want advertisers who see children as soft commercial targets to be tackled – and the Tories pledge to “legislate if necessary” on this issue. Labour promise to continue promoting child internet safety, while the Liberal Democrats would clamp down on airbrushing images of models to perfection, for the wellbeing of children and young people.
Tax is the area where ideological divides are exposed. The Conservatives’ £3 per week marriage tax break controversially singles out married couples, and those in civil partnerships, as the only family forms to support. Labour, in a case of tactical one-upmanship, proposes a new £4 toddler tax credit which re-affirms their approach of money direct to children, regardless of family form. The Lib Dem plans would help the poorest families through heavily redistributive tax proposals – but those furthest from power can always promise big.
The right to request flexible working is a crucial step for this country to become truly family friendly. Labour’s incremental approach to introducing this is the right one, and is reflected in their manifesto, with older workers now being included, alongside the addition of a month-long paternity leave allowance. However, these incremental steps have allowed their rivals to steal a march on them, with both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats promising to extend the right to all.
Our Populus survey also revealed that over a third of respondents were unable to say which political party was the most family friendly. Respondents had a dim view of Britain as a family friendly society, with the country scoring a thoroughly depressing six out of ten in terms of family friendliness.
Brown, Cameron and Clegg know that there’s more to family policy than simply parading their wives. But their manifestos are patchy on this subject – the political territory is vast, and mostly still unclaimed.
Katherine Rake is the Chief Executive of the Family and Parenting Institute
Read the manifesto promises on families and children here