My friend Maurice Glasman, a former adviser to Ed Miliband, is one of the most daring and original thinkers on the left. All Conservatives should pay attention to what he has to say, not least because he’s so good at analysing the flaws in his own party. For instance, in a recent interview he argued that the Labour Party has a lack of understanding and appreciation for family:
“The first thing is to acknowledge 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.”
I happen to agree with him. For Labour, the only kind of relationship that politicians should worry about is that between the citizen and the state. It’s a purely transactional relationship, with the citizen cast as either “the taxpayer” or a passive recipient of welfare and services.
But for most people the relationships which matter most in life are not based on transactions but on love. Last week I was in Iraq, to see for myself the threat posed by the Islamic State. When I was there I met an 82 year old Yazidi man called Khalil. He had walked for three days in the blinding desert heat to get his grandson to safety. For me, a father of three, nothing in the world matters more than that kind of unshakeable, unconditional bond.
There are plenty of people, and not just on the left, who say politicians shouldn’t talk about family. It’s always dangerous to moralise, of course, but I would argue it’s more dangerous not to have ideals in politics.
Because whatever Harriet Harman might think, the fact remains that most people aspire to get married and be part of a two-parent family. YouGov polling in 2012 found that 81 percent of people thought it was important for children to grow up with both parents, while two thirds of young people (aged 18-24) said they would like to get married one day.
In principle, everyone in politics agrees with evidence-based policymaking. We all accept the evidence that those who don’t smoke, eat a balanced diet and take lots of exercise tend to have better health outcomes. We know there’s a limit to what the state can achieve, but no-one seriously thinks that health policy should make no attempt to support and champion a healthy lifestyle.
When it comes to family structures, however, many in the Labour Party take exactly that view. The evidence shows that marriage is closely associated with stable families, better mental health and improved life outcomes for children in everything from school performance to lower youth offending rates. It’s not just correlation, researchers have identified a distinct “marriage effect”, one which holds true even when you control for factors like money. Yet faced with the facts, Labour maintain that government policy should be indifferent to marriage.
It’s why they built a benefits system which left low-income couples worse off than lone parents. And it’s why they have opposed our married couples’ tax allowance, which allows one spouse or civil partner to transfer £1,050 of their tax free income to their spouse or civil partner. The allowance effectively recognises the unpaid carers’ work which many spouses do in the home, yet Labour have labelled it a “Married Man’s Tax”.
For Labour, family policy has always been a zero sum game. You can’t be supportive of two-parent families and married life without also attacking those who fall outside this model. But we shouldn’t let ourselves be morally blackmailed like this. It goes without saying that we shouldn’t judge people who feel marriage isn’t right for them. But Conservatives also recognise that most lone parents don’t choose to be so, and that most people don’t get married anticipating a divorce. So rather than being agnostic on family structure, we should offer our full support for couples who need help with their relationship.
That’s why when we came into Government we increased funding for relationship support by 50 percent and pledged £7.5 million a year for four years. Last week, David Cameron promised to invest at least £7.5 million for as long as he is Prime Minister. We’re also creating new guidance which will help health visitors identify and support families with relationship problems.
Nor should we accept the charge that support for stronger families is about turning back the clock. I’m from a generation of fathers who think it inconceivable that women should take sole responsibility for childcare. For us, it’s incredibly important that we get a chance to bond with our children from a young age. That’s why I’m proud that we’re bringing in shared parental leave, allowing both parents to share childcare during that crucial first year of their child’s life. We’re also acting on the cost of childcare – including tax-free childcare for the first time ever – so that people have more choice when it comes to making those big decisions about work and family.
From the Troubled Families programme, to backing adoption, to bringing in joined-up support for children in care, we’re already delivering on our values in government. We’ve now announced that all government departments will have to take account of the impact on family when making policy decisions, ensuring that family life is put centre-stage in Whitehall. All of this stems from a central Conservative insight that Labour simply don’t understand: that the strength of our society depends on the strength of our families, not the other way round.