Family breakdown and the riots: Owen Jones

Unrest is being used to push a reactionary agenda.

The August riots have left an ugly mood. Communities across England felt besieged and even terrorised by the arson, vandalism and looting. There are worrying signs that right-wingers intend to manipulate people's understandable fury by pushing a reactionary social agenda, repackaged as "family values" - just as they transformed the crisis of the banks into one of public spending. This time, the left needs to be prepared. Above all, we need to take on the one-dimensional view of what a family is.

The consensus among right-wing commentators seems to be that fatherless families are to blame for the violent disorder. The Daily Express, for example, appears to find no contradiction in claiming both that "we have bred feckless, lawless males who pass on to their own children the same mistakes" and that "fatherlessness is the single most destructive factor in modern society".

Bizarre inconsistencies aside, we are witnessing the unwelcome return of the theories of the US political scientist Charles Murray, who rose to prominence in the late 1980s when he claimed that family breakdown was behind the rise of an "underclass". He argued: "The family in the dominant economic class - call it the upper middle class - is in better shape than most people think and is likely to get better. Meanwhile, deterioration is likely to continue in the lower classes." Rising illegitimacy had created a "new rabble"; one of Murray's solutions was that childbearing should entail "economic penalties for a single woman. It is all horribly sexist, I know. It also happens to be true."

As the post-riot backlash gathers pace, the left should respond with the facts. As studies by the Children's Society have shown, conflict in a family has ten times more of an impact than family structure. Keeping together a couple who are constantly at each other's throats is more likely to damage a child than being raised in stable circumstances by one parent. Although there are poorer outcomes for a significant minority of single parents, there is a strong correlation with both conflict and poverty. Indeed, the same kinds of outcomes are found in children raised by couples in similar circumstances.

For many, the feckless Vicky Pollard from Little Britain is as good a symbol of a single parent as any. The truth is that six out of ten work and, as research by the single-parent charity Gingerbread has found, the vast majority want to, despite the difficulties involved in juggling a job and raising kids. If the left doesn't take on the demonisation of single parents, nobody will.

The left's position on families should be based on the realities of modern Britain: supporting stable, happy families, whether that means the family of a gay couple, or a single parent, or a conventional nuclear family. It means making the case that poverty and unemployment put a huge degree of stress on all families and are responsible for a raft of other social problems.

The right wants to take us back to a fictional golden age - somewhere in the 1950s, when the proportion of teenage pregnancies was similar to today's, according to a study by Claire Alexander at the London School of Economics. After the riots, our job is certainly harder - but more necessary than ever.

Owen Jones is author of "Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class" (Verso, £14.99)

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This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?