John Glen is MP for Salisbury. This is an extract of an essay from Relate’s newly published collection ‘What’s love got to do with public policy‘.
Living in uncertain times – from evolving terror threats to economic uncertainties – politics can feel as if it’s only reactionary. We should instead be pro-active and forge a fresh agenda around good-quality relationships and community ties. Sadly the dominant liberal orthodoxy of recent generations – in which autonomy and personal freedom trumps everything else – has helped to undermine the value attached to enduring relationships or family. Neither authoritarian states, nor unrestricted free-markets, have provided complete answers to society’s most pressing social problems. We need a new foundation to build our policy agenda. Civil society is the future centre of British politics; relationships and family its keys.
Stable families are the bedrock of society. Evidence points to the value of stable and good-quality relationships. However policymakers are often reluctant to stress the importance of family, and more specifically marriage, to society concerned they will be interpreted as moralising or judging people who have divorced or cohabit. This is mistaken.
Forty-eight per cent of children will see the breakdown of their parents’ relationships; those with cohabiting parents are almost three times as likely as those born to married parents to see their parents split by the time they are five. In this light it is vital we take seriously the evidence which highlights that lone-parent households are two-and-a-half times as likely to be in poverty as couple families. The relationship between poverty and family breakdown is two-way: financial pressures put a strain on relationships and increase conflict within a family while family breakdown reinforces and entrenches poverty.
As well as economic consequences family breakdown impacts on children’s well being: those who experience family breakdown are more likely to experience behavioural problems; perform less well in school; need more medical treatment; leave school and home earlier; become sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age; report more depressive symptoms and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence and adulthood. Evidently family instability and breakdown is not just an emotional tragedy for children and families involved; it drives disadvantage, poverty and social exclusion.
Despite the staggering financial and human cost family breakdown exacts, many on the left do not understand or appreciate the importance of family life. Labour peer Maurice Glasman admitted in Labour’s policy, “there is a lack of understanding and a lack of appreciation for the family.” Glasman acknowledged that “Labour has been captured by a kind of aggressive public sector morality which is concerned with the individual and the collective but doesn’t understand relationships.” These comments highlight Labour’s obsession with a large state as the only model for caring for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. They are blinkered in their commitment to the collective without understanding community, failing to realise the family plays a caring role which the state lacks the compassion and intimacy to play. We need radical policy, with civil society at its core, where family and relationships are valued and prioritised. We must recognise civil society is not peripheral to the state; the state is peripheral to civil society.
Too often the critique of the left is Clement Attlee’s sentiment that charity is to “dole out money at a whim.” This thoroughly depressing critique should be rejected. Charitable activity is deeply rooted within communities and their particular needs – often supported by generous volunteers and springing from a sense of compassion and responsibility, not obligation nor whim. This should be encouraged. The voluntary sector is best placed to help people achieve good quality relationships.
The success of localism demonstrates local solutions to problems will often be preferable to the dictates of an impersonal, distant, Whitehall. This is especially true for relationships and the family. The Conservative vision harnesses the power of society to protect minorities, defend and promote local communities and create supportive, strong, stable relationships.
In a ‘big society’ citizens take responsibility; it is about real humans doing real things for themselves, their families, and their community. Social transformation will not happen in Westminster but in the communities of Britain. In order for charity to offer reliable and sustainable support it must be embedded within civil society. To achieve this, local organisations and government agencies should seek to build positive relationships, expanding networks and encouraging local expertise. Externally, government should open up contracts and funding to smaller charitable organisations. As a result, society would not just be big, but resilient: with stable charities in place to facilitate stable relationships. This refutes Attlee’s claim that money given to charities is ‘on a whim’. Rather it would allow the voluntary sector to flourish in its role of supporting good-quality relationships which are the key to civil society.
The state can be involved in supporting and fostering good relationships, but it must realise the limit of its power. It will never be able to replace relationships as the first point of call for support. There is clearly a role for the state to play as a last resort for the poor and vulnerable, a genuine safety net which underpins rather than overarches. Once the state has recognised this, those vital areas of civil society will be able to flourish under their own responsibility. The state can positively act by acknowledging local charities have a great deal of expertise in supporting good quality relationships.
In light of this where government services are contracted out they should be offered to charities which are better placed to provide relationship support. The contracts that government does offer are often inaccessible to the small, local charities best-placed to offer this support. More flexible contracts would encourage smaller organisations to win bids and develop closer ties with government.
As I have argued, stable relationships are vital for the financial and emotional wellbeing of children and adults. The scale of family breakdown must not be underestimated and its potential consequences must be understood. As a result, there should be direct funding incentives for stable families including financial incentives for those taking part in accredited marriage preparation courses with couple support available through the NHS and the couple family benefit cap uprated above the rate of inflation.
At a time when the British public are increasingly politically apathetic but socially engaged, it is more evident than ever that civil society is the radical new centre of British politics. This is where the moral authority lies and where social change will happen. It is a space that is, as yet, unclaimed and the Conservative party must move into it. For too long the left has been perceived as on the side of the poor and vulnerable yet the legacy of the last Labour Government was of dependency on a welfare state which entrenched poverty rather than alleviating it. By ignoring the family in favour of the individual and the collective, the Labour Party has demonstrated it profoundly misunderstands the causes of and the solutions to poverty. Now it’s the time for Conservatives to shout louder about their vision of social justice: a big and resilient civil society centred on stable, good-quality family and relationships. The Conservative Party must understand this and put relationships at the heart of a Conservative policy agenda.