The family and the Left
Stephen Beer and Jayne Buchanan argue that Christians on the left need to get serious about the family.
The family is once again a political battleground. Towards the end of last year the Labour and Conservative parties engaged with this issue afresh. With the election approaching the family agenda will be much fought over. Both parties are beginning the year with eagerly awaited policy documents on the subject.
Yet it would be news if a mainstream political leader suggested families were not a good thing. Labour risks losing the battle, even with the right policies, because we are often too timid to talk about the family boldly and consistently. We cannot afford to let the right own the concept of the family when family is something that affects each of us at a personal level. It connects many core Labour policies on healthcare, education, and local communities. The Labour Party, with Christians on the left, should have more confidence when promoting and talking about the family.
For many on the left, such a strategy recalls past Conservative Party’s pronouncements on the issue. The Thatcher and Major governments’ rhetoric on family values resonated well with some parts of the church community, which perhaps meant that there was less dialogue between Labour and the church than there should have been. Such language, appealing to some core Conservative voters, appeared to condemn those in different circumstances. However, the moralising tone rang hollow as Major’s disastrous “back to basics” campaign unwound.
The sentiments were not matched by effective policy measures. The divorce rate was not reversed despite a marriage tax allowance. Indeed, significant policy decisions worked against family life. Unemployment is a major contributor to family breakdown and this rose over three million twice during the Conservative years 1979 – 1997 (the peak in the divorce rate occurred just after the last recession). The attitude towards unemployment was expressed by John Major’s justification for his economic policies: “If it isn’t hurting it isn’t working”. Some of that hurt was felt deeply by families. The Conservatives brought in Sunday trading. This was a measure many Christians believed would reduce the amount of time families spent together.
While Conservative economic policy today seems driven by nostalgia for Thatcherism, its social policy has been influenced by the ideas of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), led by former leader Iain Duncan Smith. The CSJ paints a picture of “broken Britain” and promotes policies it believes will produce a “breakthrough Britain”. The CSJ itself has produced useful research about the nature of our communities; its emphasis on poverty and marriage has appealed to many Christians. The Conservatives, while eagerly talking about a “broken society”, have yet to commit to allocating the resources the CSJ believes are necessary to support communities should they win the election.
Labour policy on the family has been based on equality and the fight against poverty. It has focused on the social issues of child poverty, family stability and social mobility. In a speech in December last year, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman outlined the framework for family policy: it must be the foundation for all government policy; it is key to achieving equality and better opportunity; it must support and listen to families rather than stigmatise or lecture to them; and it must help people make choices themselves with a focus on the poorest families. She also highlighted the importance of fathers and the needs of older people.
Labour has extended maternity leave entitlement, introduced paternity leave, and enabled couples to share maternity leave. All three and four year olds can now have a free part time early education place. The focus has been on improving the quality of life for children and helping working parents. Sure Start schemes share parenting skills which cannot be learned easily in our more fragmented society and 3,000 centres have reached 2.4 million children. Spending on Sure Start was protected in December’s pre-budget report, while the Conservatives have stated that they will cut its budget.
Family – finding the common good
The church naturally encourages people to embrace the Christian faith and Christian couples to marry. Christians regard marriage as a moral issue, though we should ensure we know what the Bible says about it (see box). However, although the church promotes marriage, that is not always the same as calling for specific government action. When applied to civil marriage, it should highlight the favourable outcomes, particularly in terms of family stability. This argument opens up the possibility of considering strategies for increased family stability outside a traditional marriage ceremony, maximising common ground. The church also provides examples of practical compassion and hope of renewal when things don’t work out and relationships are damaged or destroyed.
There is something about the marriage commitment, in whatever form, that seems to be linked to increased stability. Three quarters of children that had experienced family breakdown by age three were children of unmarried parents (CSJ). Of course, we should be careful before leaping from identifying a correlation to finding a cause. People in healthy relationships are probably more likely to get married, which does not mean that marriage makes a relationship healthy. However, the nature of the commitment may have a positive effect.
Signs that the Labour Party is becoming bolder when talking about marriage are welcome. Labour should also acknowledge that it is common sense that people should aim to have children only when they are in a stable relationship and can provide both male and female role models. We need to encourage deeper and longer lasting relationships of all kinds in our communities. Family breakdown can lead to community breakdown with consequences and costs for us all. Relationships are deeply personal and people must make their own decisions. Government should ensure that artificial economic incentives do not push people into making unwise choices in life. Stable families can encourage responsibility and help build safer and stable communities.
As the Relationships Foundation emphasises, families act as welfare units. Family members support each other and commit enormous amounts of (unpaid) time caring for each other. A more individualistic society imposes costs on the taxpayer. Government spending is set to fall by £35bn over the next few years as we absorb the fallout from the financial crisis and recession. The support from the community around us, which begins with the family, will play an ever greater role in our personal and social wellbeing. Social and geographical mobility have contributed to separation between generations in families but there may be ways in which the older generation in communities can receive and provide more family support, especially as the population’s age profile rises.
Towards a Christian Socialist view of the family
Christian Socialists need to be ready with a progressive vision based on our values, such as equality, social justice, concern for the poor, and freedom. Children should have equal opportunities, whatever their family situation or income levels. The Bible describes families that are far from perfect but which span generations, and include relationships between friends, or believers of the entire faith. We must therefore think beyond a culturally-determined view of family. We can refer not only to those to whom we are related, but also to many others with whom we share strong bonds of friendship.
We can learn from Christians on the left in the United States. President Obama, in his book The Audacity of Hope, argues that “policies which strengthen marriage for those who choose it and that discourage unintended births outside of marriage are sensible goals to pursue.” Jim Wallis of Sojourners stresses that family and community must be considered together.
A marriage tax allowance worth having would disadvantage single parent families and increase inequality (see Stephen Timms’ article in this magazine). If the tax credit were only small, its effects would be limited despite the cost. Besides, no party would want people to remain in unhappy relationships that were beyond renewal. While marriage may be the most stable form of relationship, Labour has been right to focus on supporting the poorest in all families. Lone parents are reported as being two and a half times more likely to live in poverty (CSJ); this important figure has fallen 9% in the last decade under Labour. Labour has emphasised the fight against unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. This supports the foundations of family life and is an important contrast with previous Tory administrations. Many parents simply find it hard to make ends meet. They and their families need a decent income and time to spend with each other. A ‘one nation’ approach to economic and employment policy which focuses on equality will do far more for families and marriages than a tax allowance.
The distinctive nature of marriage, a public lifelong commitment, should continue to be recognised despite the large social changes we have experienced in the past fifty years. The same should apply to civil partnerships. If most people can cherish and celebrate marriage, whatever their personal circumstances, while embracing family and friends with different lifestyles, so can the Labour Party. In the same way that Sure Start works for children, there should be wider provision for sharing wisdom with new couples about growing relationships. However, if we believe that marriage is linked to greater stability and better life outcomes, we should give others greater support. It is possible to provide this while encouraging stable relationships. One way is to require all policy proposals to include family impact statements, as advocated by the Relationships Foundation.
We need to go beyond the old prejudices of the traditional right and left. The family debate has been hijacked for too long by narrow agendas. By seeking to be inclusive and refusing to stigmatise people, we can achieve a progressive family policy. For those of us on the left, this means not being afraid to value families, together with policies that support every family, encourage committed relationships, and ensure equality.
Stephen Beer is CSM’s Political Communications Officer and Chair of Vauxhall Constituency Labour Party. For more information see www.stephenbeer.com .
Jayne Buchanan is a member of Young CSM and was CSM delegate at the 2009 Labour Party conference.