Clair Rees is Executive Director of the charity Parent Infant Partnership (UK) and a Parliamentary Early Years Adviser.
Intergenerational political mind-sets begin in family life and are cultivated by a sense of the world through the eyes of a child in a particular culture, until they begin to question the rationality of the lens their parents have been looking through. Labour values were the staple diet of daily family life for me. Party choice and political loyalty were not to be meddled with – a fundamental fabric of family life.
Margaret Thatcher was not the icon in my family home growing up in the Eighties where negative perceptions of those who voted Conservative were rife. The bridge the family car was driven under every week stated in large, bold letters ‘fingers up to the poll tax’. Generational voting records emblazoned with the colour red prevailed from the legacy of coal miners and steelworkers on both parental sides of my house. Long hours of being in dark places in the earth and purgatorial furnaces does something to the mind.
Such was that legacy for my family that one of my grandfathers had such an awful life down the mines that the message he passed on to the next generation was not to work if they didn’t have to. Family narrative and labour values then became for my family welfare dependency.
Dysfunctional family dynamics were already there and with this toxic trio of mental health, substance misuse and domestic violence coupled with the opportunity to be dependent on the state, I now have two in three members of my wider family who do not work to this day, and family breakdown exists in every corner.
Education has been key to transforming that family narrative for me: a toolkit with critical thinking skills as well as opportunity to grow emotional competency to climb out of the malaise of the mine and find another route into fulfilling potential has brought success. Yet there is so much untapped potential in the kind of community I was raised in, if only real-time investment were parachuted in to turn the lives around for the next generation and a real opportunity society created.
Two general elections ago I made the steely decision to emblazon my voting card blue, to change the order of the day in my family kitchen, prepare a different political meal and commit to transforming the life chances of my future family members.
What turned this lady? The Prime Minister’s then statement in 2006: “For the Conservative Party I’m leading, social justice is a vital issue”. In over a decade of listening to political speeches none had ever fully resonated with me in the way my ears were pricking up to a message of hope to transform the life chances of the many. The life chances of the kind of family I come from.
Not a short term fix for a short term gain, but a real understanding of what lies at the heart of entrenched family troubles and with solutions to break the intergenerational cycles of deprivation, inequality and poverty. The difference for me was that the Conservative Party was willing to acknowledge that one of the biggest issues of our day is family breakdown. The vital issues of social justice are of the family and the Conservatives should be leading on this with its legacy of being the party of the family.
The elephant in the room that is family breakdown will only be tackled through the lens of social justice and compassionate conservatism. The inquisitive man who notices all other sorts of political details but fails to notice this elephant will do so at his peril. How well are we doing in implementing the family test throughout policy that is being created?
For when such an elephant is costing the same as the defence of the realm each year and stamping on human potential whilst causing such misery in our family and community life, there must be a call to political action – social mobility, social renewal and social justice.
Key statistics show the long road ahead which will take real political commitments from all sides of the party:
- 40 per cent of children experience family breakdown: at least half by age three;
- There is a 50/50 chance for a baby born today of living with both birth parents;
- The annual cost of family breakdown is £44 Billion.
As the Centre for Social Justice argues, ‘stable, healthy families are at the heart of strong societies. It is within the family environment that an individual’s physical, emotional and psychological development occurs. From our family we should learn unconditional love, understand right from wrong, and gain empathy, respect and self-regulation. These qualities enable us to engage positively at school, at work and in society.’
Let us restore stable family life, stability in community life for greater social cohesion and bring back into the social fabric of our daily lives increased life chances for all. This Government is making headway on tackling some of these entrenched issues of social justice and this needs to continue to be the cornerstone of compassionate conservative policy. We need real-time solutions for the challenge of poor mental health we face in our times with a social justice policy reset if we are truly serious about making the elephant more visible and tamed.
One key solution to form this cornerstone and build great Britons of the future is the key policy recommendations of the 1001 Critical Days manifesto, which brings into sharp focus the first 1001 days of a child’s life from conception to age two, where the economic and scientific case to provide a preventative strategy to break cycles of deprivation, poverty and inequality is incontrovertible.
The first 1001 days of a child’s life are an economic gift for the future but it requires investment into early relationships – the earliest relationships are the beginning instruments of our mental health. Relationships are what build family life, social cohesion in communities and infrastructure in society. If we lay the cornerstone at the very beginning of the next generation where parents are more flexible and open to change, then we stand a greater chance of increasing life chances to tackle the elephant which brings relational morbidity to family life.
Strengthening relationships in family life from the beginning will literally be lifesaving. We must not shy away from taming this elephant, but in order to do so compassionately it must be done non-judgmentally, with understanding of root causes and with sensitivity that mental health and family breakdown affect so many in our society today. As a long term practitioner in mental health facing these challenges head-on to seek solutions, the biggest challenge for the families I have journeyed with is stigma.
Compassionate conservatism must get its policies and key messages on cue in a non-stigmatising way to engage families across the demographic cultural spectrum in our society. The bridge that family cars drive under must state ‘Conservatives are investing in your family’s potential’ and to build those bridges which form infrastructure for Britain’s future, investing in relationships is the vehicle for change.
After the recent General Election at the Conservative Party conference, the Prime Ministers Speech nailed the call for why I am now Conservative. The Compassionate Conservatism Caucus that is growing in the party must raise its voice loud, amidst the other big political issues of our day that have potential to overshadow the elephant staring us in the face.
Real upstream solutions must be sought and compassionate capitalism aligned with the voice of compassionate conservatism for the investment required, to make a life chances strategy that will have the long term impact desired happen. Business must step up to the plate of their social responsibility and annual alms giving, beginning by investing in solutions that strengthen relationships in family and community life. Sound economic policy must come with a social legacy to open up an opportunity society, politics with philosophy – the big society in action. The biggest bang for your buck lies with babies – why not start there?