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Issue 52, October 2000

'Family friendly' posturing

YOU CAN tell that an election is near when the main parties start talking about 'the family'. New Labour have said that the family will be central to the next budget and is a 'dividing line' between them and the Tories. Hague meanwhile declares that the Tories will relaunch themselves as the party of the family. So what lies behind this resurrected family rhetoric?

A recent Guardian/ICM poll found that only 8% of voters believe that the Tories are the party with the most 'family friendly' policies. Even 60% of Tory supporters don't think they're friendly to the family. An internal memo warned that the party was in danger of being out of touch with the public on women's issues and marriage. But the proposals they are putting forward to supposedly regain their reputation will make the situation even worse. They plan to introduce a tax allowance for couples where the woman stays at home to look after the children. But the allowance will only go to couples that are married in a 'traditional' two parent family.

The welfare policy committee discussing the proposals was apparently divided about whether they should discriminate in favour of married couples. Even 40% of Tory activists in one survey thought that there should be no distinction. Far from putting the Tories more in touch with women, this threatens to alienate them even further. It's as if the Tories learnt nothing from John Major's 'back to basics' fiasco. Social attitudes have moved on and women don't want to be preached to by hypocritical politicians (from either of the two main parties) telling them how to live their lives. The same Guardian/ICM poll found that 64% of those surveyed disagreed that parents should stick together 'for the sake of the children'. Cohabitation continues to increase: 38% of births in England and Wales take place outside marriage with 60% of those registered to both parents living at the same address. In one Observer poll 68% thought that lone parents were just as capable of bringing up children as two parents, provided they had enough money to do so.


This is one more example of the ongoing battle within the Tory party between the 'social authoritarians', represented by Ann Widdecombe, and the 'social liberals', personified by Michael Portillo in his latest reincarnation as a 'caring conservative'. Portillo understands that if the Tories are to widen their social base from their 'core support' and make an election win possible, they have to move beyond moral authoritarianism, whether on the family, drugs or other social issues. Hague is desperately trying to straddle both tendencies. Widdecombe was knocked back over her crazy cannabis speech at the Tory conference. But on this issue the 'Widdywing' appears to have come out on top.

The collapse in New Labour's support in the wake of the fuel protests, show that a Tory victory at the election is not beyond the realms of possibility. This could happen despite a reactionary social agenda if support for Labour collapses further in what is a very volatile situation. However it's more likely that reactionary policies which are out of touch with social attitudes will hinder any Tory hopes of expanding beyond their core support.

New Labour are also turning to 'the family' to try and reverse their slide in the opinion polls. This has been especially dramatic amongst women. Even before the fuel protests they were experiencing a potentially catastrophic fall in women's support. In June 1999 the party had a 40 point lead over the Tories amongst women (compared to 23% amongst men). Twelve months later that lead had fallen by 19 points. It's women that tend to have the most contact with local schools and hospitals and see quite clearly that New Labour haven't delivered on their election promises. And New Labour aren't considered much more 'family friendly' than the Tories. Only 25% of people think that they have the most family friendly policies.


New Labour have their own share of social authoritarians and have had their own failed ideological campaigns to promote marriage as the best and most natural way of bringing up children. This time however the emphasis appears to be less on moralising and more on policies which will supposedly help women combine work and family responsibilities.

New Labour have set up a review of 'family friendly' policies which is due to report quite soon. According to the media, they are considering extending paid maternity leave beyond the current eighteen weeks and increasing statutory maternity pay. It's possible that some of the entitlement to parental leave and two weeks paternity leave could be paid. New Labour have also announced that they will increase spending on nurseries from £66 million to £200 million, aiming to create 1.6 million places by 2004.

Even these modest (and in some cases token) proposals are not certain to be implemented. Recently a barrage of big-business inspired, anti-family friendly policy propaganda has appears in the press. One widely quoted survey from Management Today warned of an imminent backlash by childless workers against parents if further policies are introduced. Digby Jones, CBI director general, has said that 'enough is enough'. The CBI has opposed improving maternity leave on the ground that women will lose their jobs as employers favour men instead. What hypocrisy! Their concern is for their members profits, not women's jobs. These kind of spurious arguments have historically always been used when women workers demand more rights. If the bosses had their way we would still be giving birth at our machines in the morning and back at work in the afternoon.


But once again New Labour are listening more to big business than ordinary women. One government official was quoted in The Observer newspaper as saying, "we need to make sure there is not a backlash against women, so employers don't stop hiring them". (15 October) Plans to give women the right to return part-time after maternity leave have apparently been shelved under pressure from the bosses. Unsurprisingly the review gives priority to how maternity provision affects 'economic competitiveness and productivity'.

Watered down family friendly policies are unlikely to have much effect in stemming New Labour's decline amongst women. Many have not forgotten that one of New Labour's first acts was to cut benefits to lone parents. Disillusionment has deepened amongst both working and middle class women as promises on health and education have been broken and public services continue to decline. Women in particular perceive Blair and New Labour as authoritarian, out of touch, and not listening to ordinary people. They are unlikely to move over to the Tories in large numbers. Many will simply not bother to vote at all. But these are women that could be won over to a genuine socialist alternative.

Christine Thomas

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