David Goodhart is the author of The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics.
During a general election, the family is repeatedly invoked by all parties. The real family gets almost no attention in the 2017 party manifestos, including the Conservative one.
Yet you do not have to be an old-school traditionalist to wonder whether many of our contemporary problems do not have at least some root in a neglect of the private realm.
Consider this list: the crisis in social care, thanks in part to the decline in family obligation; the housing crisis, exacerbated by the decline of the stable two-parent family; the over-dependence on immigration, because of the economic and cultural bias against larger families; the rise of stress and mental illness, especially among young women; the persistence of gender pay inequality, and the difficulty of recruiting people to caring jobs because they are so undervalued.
A central challenge of modern politics is how to restore dignity and prestige to the domestic realm – which means one parent, usually a mother, being able to afford to stay at home for longer – without reversing the advances in women’s equality and autonomy of the past generations.
Yet all the water is still flowing against domesticity. This is not an area of politics I had thought much about until recently – my own mother was a pre-feminist woman, but women’s equality has been part of the common sense of my liberal, professional social circles throughout my adult life.
But when I considered the drift of recent policy for my recent book about the value divides in British society, The Road to Somewhere, I was surprised to find how narrowly it reflected the priorities of the professional women who tend to put career before family.
At the higher end, policy is about equality at work and minimising the impact of motherhood on professional womens’ careers, and at the lower income and single mother end it is about providing the support to enable women to work as much as possible, so contributing to household income and Treasury coffers.
The broader ambivalence about the family reflects the decline of religious feeling and traditional female altruism, and a more individualistic way of life for both men and women. (Almost one third of current EU leaders are childless through either choice or misfortune.) It also reflects the increasing economisation of public life. Orthodox feminists and economists both regard the family as a place of little value – for the economists because it does not contribute to GDP, for the feminists because it prevents women from contributing fully in the only sphere that matters: the male-dominated public sphere.
Moreover, policy is increasingly driven by the assumption that the gender division of labour should not merely be modified but transcended altogether: men and women are not only equal, it is assumed, but have exactly the same priorities.
This view is so influential that even recent Tory governments appear to believe that to get a hearing in modern Britain you need to spend more time, energy and money on equality at work initiatives than on trying to reverse the decline of the two-parent family in lower income Britain.
Yet about 40 per cent of British children now grow up in cohabiting or single parent families. And family fragility is far greater at the lower end of the income spectrum. Half of pre-school children from the bottom 20 per cent of households do not live with both parents, compared with one in 14 of pre-school children from the top 20 per cent of households.
Affluent families often stick to conventional marriage arrangements for themselves yet do not preach what they practice. The decline of the mainstream family is seen as an unalterable part of the modern world, the result of choices that individuals make when less constrained by tradition.
And despite Theresa May’s reputation for more socially conservative instincts than her predecessor, this issue of family decline does not merit a mention in the Conservative manifesto. The manifesto does not even repeat David Cameron’s pledge to make Britain “the most family-friendly country in Europe.” It talks, instead, about parity for women in public appointments, helping men and women to share parenting more easily and another increase in childcare subsidy.
Nobody in mainstream politics wants to “return to the 1950s”. Many of the changes over the past 60 years have made Britain a far better place, and not just for women. Fewer people are locked in failed or abusive marriages, women can bring up children on their own without stigma if they have to, and the public sphere of work and public life now has much greater access to the brains of the female half of the population.
Yet there has been so much stress on greater autonomy for women, and the central importance of work outside the home, that we have lost sight of two equally important goals: how to respect the choices of many different kinds of women, and how to preserve the two-parent family in an era of greater moral freedom.
And a modern, flexible form of domesticity is popular. According to Catherine Hakim, a sociologist, British women divide into three groups: the work-centred 15 to 20 per cent who put job first, a similar proportion who always put family first and the 60 to 70 per cent in the middle who juggle both, but tend to put family first when children are young. A Netmums survey of 4,000 mothers of young children found that one third would have chosen to spend all their time looking after their children if they could afford it. And, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, nearly 70 per cent of women support the so-called ‘modified male breadwinner’ model – the man working full-time, and the woman part-time, when children are young.
So what would a real family policy look like? First, we should follow most other rich countries in recognising family responsibilities in the tax system. The old Married Man’s tax allowance (50 per cent on top of his standard tax allowance) was phased out in the 1990s and never replaced. Today, it is a matter of allowing couples raising children together (I would include long-term cohabiters) to pool their tax-free allowances. This would help to reduce the extra tax burden on single earner families with children and mitigate the so-called “couple penalty” in the benefit system.
We also need to review state childcare funding, now running at almost £8 billion a year. Currently you can only access support by handing your child to a stranger, yet most mothers would far prefer to keep care within the family. Why not a voucher system that would give women the choice of paying themselves or paying for external care? And that external care could include a child-minder or a grandparent.
The recent decision to limit various child benefits to two children should be reversed. There is some survey evidence that women would like somewhat larger families if they could afford them, and if we are to wean ourselves off large-scale immigration we should be encouraging that.
And what about more support for the extended family to help combat the social care crisis? The Government is already proposing that companies allow staff to take one year of unpaid leave for caring duties so why not go further and provide grants for people who want to convert garages or attics into granny or grandpa flats?
None of these mainly financial measures in themselves will stop the decline of the family. But they could help to reduce the often money-related arguments between couples, especially in low income households (we should also make parenting lessons and relationship counselling as normal as going to a pre-natal class).
Also, society would be sending a signal about the importance of family life. And if most women still prefer a male main breadwinner, then male problems in education and employment, especially those of low-income males, should be more central to thinking about families.
There is no need to continue fighting the last war for equality – my two daughters face no more obstacles to professional success than my two sons. In the interests of genuine pluralism, society can now support both the egalitarian-androgynous way of life – in which men and women share all tasks and responsibilities equally – and a modified version of the gender division of labour, and even the stay-at-home mother (and occasionally father).
I write as an outsider to Conservative Party debates, and may be missing something going on behind the scenes, but there is surely a big political win for any party that really does listen to mainstream Britain on this subject. Ending the bias against domesticity would be fair, popular and might even save the state money. It would be modern social conservatism with a purpose.