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Exclusive poll: childcare could swing voters at the next election

Some 42 per cent of Britons say early-years reform will impact the way they vote.

By Alona Ferber

Childcare reform was the rabbit-out-of-the-hat moment in Jeremy Hunt’s Budget in March. With public demand for affordable care having reached a crescendo, the Conservatives pipped Labour to the post in announcing expanded provision in the service of growing the economy. While the Chancellor had not mentioned childcare once in his first fiscal event in November, here he was announcing policy to fix the broken early-years sector. The government had gambled on a potential vote-winner – and one that the opposition had spent months touting as a key plank of its manifesto.

Now, research published tomorrow and shared exclusively with New Statesman Spotlight proves that the Tories’ bet was astute. As many as 42 per cent of UK voters – close to a half – say childcare reform will be key to how they vote in the next general election.

Support for such policies is not limited to parents, according to the survey of 2,000 adults commissioned by the Early Education and Childcare Coalition: almost two thirds (59 per cent) of voters say good education in the first years of life benefits the entire country, not just families with children.

For any future governments wary of losing votes due to tax rises and extra spending, 40 per cent (more than a third) said they backed investing more taxpayer money in early education and childcare – even if that means raising taxes. Among respondents hoping to become parents that figure was as high as 59 per cent.

The 30 organisation-strong coalition, which officially launches on Thursday, wants to garner political and public support for correcting the high cost of childcare in the UK (the third-highest in the OECD) and finding a solution to the rising costs and staffing shortages that have led to childcare providers closing in record numbers. In the 12 months to March 2022, 4,000 childcare businesses in England shuttered, the steepest drop since 2016.

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These poll findings confirm that overhauling childcare can be popular, but they also attest to the pitfalls of poorly-considered policy. In the Budget, Hunt’s expansion of the 30 free childcare hours previously available for children between the ages of three and five years, to nine months (at the end of maternity leave) and five years was welcomed by campaigners. But the Chancellor faced criticism from the sector over inadequate funding rates, lack of strategy to grow the workforce, and the sheer lack of available spaces for all the additional children who would enter the system when the expansion kicks in (albeit in stages) from 2024. When those criticisms were presented to voters, support for the reforms halved from 68 per cent to 32 per cent.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have pledged big on “growth, growth, growth” – and the findings show that voters see a link between early-years education and the economy. Forty-three per cent said Hunt’s expanded provision would help the economy by enabling more parents to work, and 36 per cent said reform would lower government spending on benefits. Some 26 per cent said it would help close the gender pay gap, as more mothers would return to the workforce.

And while discussion of the problems with the early-years sector tends to centre on the cost and availability for parents, the research found that voters are aware that childcare professionals are underpaid (44 per cent) and “undervalued” (31 per cent). Hunt’s reforms include a pilot scheme to offer a one-off £600 payment for new childminders, but the plans lack a longer-term pathway towards ensuring a career in childcare is adequately paid and valued. With the majority of workers in the sector being women, some feminists claim that, at present, the increased participation of some women in the workforce is enabled by the difficult, low-paid, highly skilled and under-appreciated work of other women, and that any reform of the sector must improve conditions for its workers, too.

As the election nears, the Early Education and Childcare Coalition believes there is an opportunity now “to truly transform childcare”, says Sarah Ronan, the new group’s acting director. “Voters understand that we all benefit from an early-education and childcare sector with the right investment. Politicians need to understand that too and invest accordingly.”

If in doubt, Labour and the Conservatives can always take heed from Australia. The Labor leader Anthony Albanese won the election last year with a plan to increase childcare subsidies to 90 per cent – proof that boldness can have big returns at the ballot box.

[See also: Why we should be worried by the new Covid wave]

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