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Family talk

As we head ever closer to what some are calling a 'mum's-election', getting Labour talking more about the family is the right thing to do. 

Labour appears to be more willing to talk about the family. Jim Murphy's Progress lecture last week was part of a new tone coming from ministers this year. It continues this evening when Ed Balls joins Christian political activists for the Christian Socialist Movement's annual Tawney Dialogue. The question being posed is will the general election make any difference to the family?

Labour has avoided talking about the family for too long, despite deploying a range of family-friendly policies. For the most part, this has been because we have sought to be inclusive and to avoid stigmatising anyone. Our support for families has focused particularly on child poverty and improving the opportunities available to all children. This has been combined with a small revolution in parental leave entitlements in the workplace. Occasionally some representatives do find it hard to avoid a strain of political correctness. Yet since most people are relaxed about talking about family, Labour should be too. Moreover, 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.

As the government's green paper on families points out, most children (64%) are in married families. A Comres poll for the Bible Society and the Christian Socialist Movement found that 79% of people believed that it was best for children to have two parents. To some extent these facts are common sense. We simply need to reflect them in what we say and in the policies we advocate.

We cannot hark back to some alleged golden age of the family. We do need to recognise the significant changes that have taken place over the past twenty years or so. There are more single parent families (which tend to be the poorest). A lower proportion of people are married, though more people co-habit before marriage. The divorce rate appears to have stabilised. Policy needs to focus on family stability and in a way which is felt by most people.

It is vital we get this right since it will be an election issue. The Conservatives' family-friendly rhetoric can resonate with people, even though there is little substance behind it. The plan for a family tax allowance is part of this spin since it is unlikely it would be large enough to make an impact, yet the larger it is, the more money must be found from elsewhere. One potential source of funds is money allocated to measures that will help the poorest children, who are often in single parent families. There is certainly no sign the Tories are prepared to spend the sums of money on social regeneration advocated by their favourite think tank, the Centre for Social Justice.

Even when we are talking about families, we need to consider the economy. Unemployment is a major cause of family breakdown. This is where Conservative claims to support the family must be tested. The peaks in the divorce rate occurred around the time of the last two recessions, when unemployment was above three million. A party which risks growth out of a recession and does not have jobs as a top priority is never going to be family-friendly.

Labour is right to focus on family stability. Talking more about the family is the right thing to do. Going into the election we need to make sure we promote family life in a way that is clear and meaningful to all.


This article was first published on the Progress website on 10 March 2010.

Progress, 10 March 2010, 10/03/2010

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