SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 107 - March 2007

The Tories’ new old family policies

LAST DECEMBER the Tory Party’s Social Justice Policy group published a 400-page report under the title, Breakdown Britain. The report attempts to give the impression that the ‘new’ Tories are deeply concerned with the terrible poverty in Britain. On closer analysis, however, it repeats the old Tory mantra of the importance of marriage and how this would radically combat poverty as well as reducing spending on welfare benefits. Once again it is single parents and ‘broken homes’ that are blamed for poverty, crime and reliance on welfare benefits.

Iain Duncan Smith, briefly leader of the Tory Party and author of the report, believes there are five ‘pathways to poverty’: family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, debt and drug addiction. All could be significantly reduced if more couples got married and stayed married: "Children from a broken home are twice as likely to have behavioural problems, perform worse at school, become sexually active at a younger age, suffer depression and turn to drugs, smoking and heavy drinking".

In line with New Labour’s thinking, he looks to the family and the voluntary sector to provide welfare, rather than increase social spending. Without the family caring for the sick, old and children, he declares, "the state would be overwhelmed".

Once again the blame for crime, poverty, drug addiction and low educational attainment is placed on the increasing breakdown of families and the rise in single-parent households. While acknowledging that many single parents are forced to live on very low incomes, the report concludes that a reduction in the number of single parents is the solution. Even cohabiting couples should marry as they would then be less likely to break up: he claims that one in two cohabiting parents split up before the child’s fifth birthday, compared to one in twelve for married couples.

Undoubtedly, many single parents (90% of whom are women) and their children face severe poverty with over half of all lone parent households being classified as poor. Welfare benefits barely provide the basics. Accommodation is often inadequate and in run-down areas. Labour may boast about getting more single parents into work but recent statistics confirm that the pay is so low and childcare so expensive and inadequate that many are forced to give up their job. The latest survey from the childcare group Daycare Trust finds that the costs of pre-school childcare are beyond the reach of most parents. In fact, lone parents are twice as likely as other workers to leave their jobs, which are often temporary or insecure. Yet John Hutton, Labour’s work and pensions secretary, wants to cut benefits for single parents once their youngest child reaches eleven, instead of 16 as at present, to increase the number of single parents in work.

Poverty is the main contributing factor to poor diet, ill health and crime, not single parents. The reason so many single parents are struggling on very low incomes is down to the society we live in.

The overriding reason that capitalism and its political representatives promote marriage is to encourage the traditional family to care for children and the sick and old. With the introduction of the National Health Service (NHS) and state welfare in the form of care of the elderly, social services, etc, some of the burdens on the family were relieved. With continuing cuts in these areas capitalism expects the family to take on more care, which will fall disproportionately on women.

The family plays a dual role in capitalist society. Most people see the family as representing relationships – between adults and parents and children. Yet the nuclear family has not always been the norm throughout the development of human society. Early communistic societies accepted that children were the responsibility of society as a whole, as well as parents.

On the other hand, today’s ‘traditional’ family is used by the ruling class as an institution for social control, social stability and to carry out the unpaid role of bringing up the next generation and caring for the elderly and ill.

The fall in the number of marriages, the increase in cohabitation and rise in single-parent families, and recognition of gay relationships, represent a certain breaking away from the ‘traditional’ family. People feel they no longer should stay in an unhappy or abusive relationship (although the pressures of capitalism itself often lead to stresses in relationships).

More women are now working, looking for more economic independence, despite many working in low paid jobs. Most women would not want to return to the period where they had to rely on the male head of the household for all of their needs. If we look at all those currently working full time, women already spend 30% more time on childcare every day than men. But New Labour and the Tories – both capitalist parties – want to justify cutting back on the welfare state by endorsing the necessity of families to play a more ‘traditional’ role. Duncan Smith’s complaints about taxpayers having to foot the bill for single parents reminds us of one of Labour’s first acts when it first took power in 1997, to cut benefits to lone parents.

Yet within the constraints of capitalism it is increasingly difficult for married, cohabiting or single parents to bring up children. Long working hours, lack of affordable housing with adequate space, expensive and often inferior childcare and low pay, all affect parents and children. The demand for a shorter working week with no loss of pay to allow parents to spend more time with their children, as well as adults to enjoy their relationships, is very important. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey shows that more than eight out of ten women and men would like to spend more time with their family (an increase from less than three-quarters in 1989).

Duncan Smith accuses Labour of adopting a ‘partnership penalty’. When claiming income support or tax credits it is often financially better to live apart, which allegedly deters couples from getting married. He argues that the tax and benefit system is, in fact, a "significant factor in the growth of one-parent families". Of course, we should demand that welfare benefits are increased so that people can live a decent life whether they live alone or with a partner.

Tory proposals are likely to include tax incentives to get married and opposition to the recommendations of the Law Commission to extend rights to cohabiting couples. This, Duncan Smith argues, would encourage even more people not to marry and therefore doom them to more unstable relationships. It would be better to lecture cohabitees about their precarious legal rights to persuade them to get married. The report points to welfare support for lone mothers having resulted in a shift in ‘social norms’ and the acceptability of being a single parent.

The report also complains about those single parents on benefits living in accommodation that is too spacious for them. Why should the parent who has left the family home be considered for an extra room so that their child can visit?, he fumes. No doubt Duncan Smith and other capitalist politicians live in homes with no unnecessary extra space.

Mothers (no mention of fathers) should be encouraged to stay at home with tax incentives to look after young children but, of course, they would have to be married and the tax allowance would mostly benefit the better off.

Crude logic is used to argue that children will get a better, more affluent upbringing within a home of married parents. This ignores the reality that within many marriages there is conflict, including domestic violence and child abuse. It can be worse for the children in many cases for parents to stay together in a stressful or abusive relationship.

Duncan Smith asks "why the fourth largest economy continues to have ever greater demands placed upon its social support system, the welfare state, during a period of unprecedented prosperity?" But surely such a ‘prosperous society’ should be able to ensure the well-being of all those who cannot work rather than blaming them for higher taxes? However, what Duncan Smith fails to address is why such prosperity is enjoyed by so few while poverty is growing.

There is enough wealth to allow people to work less hours; for adequate childcare as well as play facilities and organised activities for children outside of school; for more and better and affordable housing to be built; and for a decent wage. But big business, represented by Duncan Smith, the Tories and now New Labour, are only interested in maximising their profits. Tory and Labour politicians would rather lay the guilt for poverty and crime onto ordinary parents, particularly those bringing up children on their own, than admit that the blame for increasing poverty really lies on the unjust and illogical capitalist system.

Jane James


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page