Tory politicians used to talk a lot about family. It was a traditional Tory tune for when they addressed any social problems. In a speech delivered earlier today the children’s commissioner of England, Rachel de Souza – hardly a partisan figure – has challenged our frit politicians to start talking about this issue once again. She cited new evidence that the family as we once knew it is disappearing.
For the first time in the history of England and Wales, more children are now born to unmarried parents than parents who have walked down the aisle (indeed, walking down the aisle is decreasing too). Divorce is slowly dropping as well, with increasing numbers of cohabitation households. De Souza published new statistics to show that almost half of British children will experience the separation of their parents in childhood and grow up outside of what is called the “traditional” family.
Supporting couples before they break up could be an issue for the left just as much as the right. After all, according to the children’s commissioner’s research, 77 per cent of children are part of families either in or out of wedlock. The single mum in the maternity ward is actually quite rare. But the government does little to help couples stick together.
There is plenty of evidence to link family upheaval with poorer outcomes later down the line, from doubling the chances of growing up in poverty to poorer results at school. Children growing up in unmarried households are six times more likely to see their parents separate than those that are married, according to the Spectator. Stability shouldn’t be a middle-class perk. A majority of young people want to get married later in life, according to one Marriage Foundation poll conducted last year. It’s a very modern aspiration for the Gen Z generation.
It is baffling that the left does not speak more about the family; that marriage is sometimes criticised as an institution designed to trap women. Why wouldn’t a couple commit to each other to help with childcare? By all means junk the church and white dress; get married in a night club if they want – but the commitment is the most important thing.
Many argue that there’s evidence to prove a correlation but not the causal link between marriage breakdown and poor outcomes for children later in life. It can be both ways for sure: breakdown can cause poverty, and poverty with its never-ending misery can cause relationships to fracture.
And yet, research published by the Marriage Foundation earlier this year shows that poor married couples with children are more stable and likely to stick together than rich unmarried couples with children. A few years ago, I worked with Savanta ComRes to establish a link between childhood experiences of parental separation and later outcomes. This complex work found that even after controlling for factors such as social class, the effects of seeing your parents separate increased the likelihood of failing at school, living on benefits in later life and getting in trouble with the police. No social scientist can isolate a group of families on Mars and inoculate them from other influences that life throws at families, but that doesn’t mean we should rule out its effects.
Morality has long departed our political arena, but that doesn’t have to mean that voices on the left can’t talk about family. One of the few times parliament has ever considered a piece of legislation supporting warring couples was under a Labour government. The party could do so again by facing up to the realities of family breakdown and finding its own voice on this issue.