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Labour is the true party of the family

6 Mar , 2014  

Harriet Harman MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, explains why Labour is the true party of the family.

Over the years, family policy has been highly contested. It used to be assumed that the Tories were the party of the family and their approach defined family policy. It meant taking a judgmental view about families – that they must be married and stay married. It promoted the view that support services – like childcare – should be there but only for “failing families”.

Those of us who argued for the right to divorce and for rights for women within the family were characterised as anti-family. Our arguments for childcare for mothers who wanted to go back to work were seen as threatening to, and undermining of, women’s “proper” role caring for children in the home. As were our arguments for helping mothers return to work.

But the reality was that the divorce rate was rising – not least because of women becoming unprepared to stay in violent or unhappy marriages. With greater educational qualifications, women’s participation in the labour market was growing. So the judgmental family policy which expected couples to stay married and women to stay at home was seen as increasingly out of date and out of touch

Women in the women’s movement, and the Labour Party – along with the important work of men like Malcolm Wicks in the Family Policy Studies Centre – sought to redefine family policy. We argued that the role of the state was not to tell people how to lead their lives and condemn them as a failure if they deviated from the “traditional” family. We argued that services – like childcare – are important for all families where the parents want them. And that abused and neglected children are better cared for in services which include children from “ordinary” families – not just those from deprived homes.

We argued that women should be protected from having to go back to work too soon, by longer maternity leave and higher maternity pay. We argued for men too, to have time off work – with paternity leave. Labour effectively replaced the Tories as the “party of the family” asserting that families come in all shapes and sizes and that it is the role of the state to support families with children.

In government between 1997 and 2010 we sought to put that approach to family policy into practice. We established the National Childcare Strategy – with Childcare Tax Credit, funds to councils for childcare and Sure Start Centres. We doubled maternity pay and maternity leave. We introduced paternity leave for the first time and gave a right to request flexible working for those with family responsibilities.

But despite the progress we made we didn’t solve the problem of families – especially women – balancing home and work. We need to make more progress.

But now, the Tory/LibDem government is turning the clock back. They are cutting support for childcare and using scarce public resources to give a tax cut to married couples, but in most cases only if one (likely to be the woman) stays at home. This tax cut will see resources go to married couples even if they have no children and even if he is on his second or third marriage. There is no evidence that this tax relief which will cost the public purse £700m a year will make any difference in encouraging couples to get married or stay married. And, anyway, we oppose the notion that it’s the job of government to be using public money to “send a message” about the desirability of marriage.

Labour is committed to remaining the Party of the family with:

  • increased childcare provision which is affordable, accessible and quality, for example, with 25 hours free childcare for working parents with 3 and 4 year olds
  • help mothers’ and fathers’ take time off work when their child is young
  • ensure parents and grandparents can combine their work and family responsibilities
  • support families in a practical and non-judgmental way

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