New Labour's family values
Despite Jack Straw's protestations that the government is
'not about lecturing people about how they should live their
lives', the use of the state to influence and shape people's
behaviour runs like a thread throughout New Labour's family and
New Labour's latest consultation document, Supporting
Families, is a mass of contradictions. In one breath it
seems to accept social reality, stating quite rightly that
families have changed and that the government couldn't turn the
clock back even if it wanted to do so. In the next, it argues
the case for promoting and strengthening marriage as the
'surest' and 'most stable' way of raising children.
Jack Straw goes out of his way to stress that the government
doesn't want to stigmatise lone parents and other family
groupings. Since the uproar over cuts to lone parent benefits
last December the government have had to tread far more
Tory anti-lone parent propaganda has clearly had
less effect than many ministers assumed. With 24% of families
headed by a lone parent, most people know someone bringing up
children on their own, and recognise how well lone parents cope
despite financial and other difficulties. In a recent Observer
poll, 68% of people surveyed thought that lone parents could
bring up children just as well as two provided that they had
enough money to do so.
Eighty per cent disagreed that couples
living together can't bring up children as well as married
couples. So why, when promoting one particular type of family
implies that alternative arrangements are inferior, are New
Labour insisting that marriage is best? Their propaganda may be
more subtle than that of the Tories, but the consequences are
similar: lone parents and their children are made to feel
guilty, inadequate and second best. In addition, gays and
lesbians will continue to be stigmatised and discriminated
New Labour's confusion reflects underlying contradictions
within capitalism, in particular the dual role of the family.
For most people families are about personal relationships. But
the family is also an institution which capitalism has relied
upon for economic reasons and in order to maintain social
stability and control.
Historically, the ruling class have
promoted - through legislation and ideology - the 'bourgeois',
patriarchal family where wife and children were economically
dependent on, and under the control and authority of, a male
head of household. While the husband worked outside the home the
main role of the wife was to run the household and raise the
next generation. This was the family arrangement of the
capitalist class themselves, which suited their need to
accumulate and inherit wealth.
As the ruling class, they then attempted to impose this
family form on the rest of society, although not without
difficulties. Not all working class families, of course, matched
this 'norm', with many married women continuing, for economic
reasons, to work outside the home. Nevertheless by the second
half of the 19th century this became the 'ideal' family to which
all classes were expected to conform.
Social changes over the last 30 years have had a significant
impact on how people form their personal relationships.
Cohabitation has increased tenfold in 25 years. Two in five
marriages end in divorce. Three million children are living in
One of the most important social changes over the past few
decades has been the number of women going out to work. In 1971,
57% of women were economically active compared to 72% today. The
number of working mothers with children under five has doubled
since 1973. Consequently, women's attitudes have shifted
significantly, undermining traditional ideas of patriarchal
control and economic dependency.
While in 1987, 43% of women
agreed it was 'a husband's job to earn the money and a wife's to
look after the home and family', the latest survey found only
22% of women agreed with this statement. One of the consequences
of women's increased economic independence has been a rise in
the number of divorces. Clearly this isn't the only cause of
Many social factors interrelate. Poverty,
insecurity and the stresses and strains of life in general under
capitalism take their toll on personal relationships. And people
just change and want to move on. But seven out of ten divorces
are initiated by women. Their aspirations have changed and they
expect more out of relationships.
Having the means, however
inadequate, to survive outside marriage, has meant that women
have been less prepared to tolerate abusive or unhappy
relationships. The existence of the welfare state, in particular
the provision of council housing and benefits, has also been
very important in this respect. By providing public services
such as health, education and, in a more limited way, nurseries,
the state also relieved some of the pressures placed on women in
If capitalism were about to enter a new period of prolonged
economic upswing, on a higher level even to that experienced
from 1950-1974, then theoretically it might be able to adapt to
the changes that are taking place in the family without too much
But that is not the perspective that opens up for
world capitalism and it continues to depend on the nuclear
family economically, socially and ideologically. As a result,
the needs of capitalism come into conflict with social reality.
Social changes are portrayed as a 'crisis in the family' and
policies aimed at resolving this 'crisis' undermine and distort
A 'Family crisis'?
New Labour's consultation document Supporting Families
clearly reveals these contradictions. On the one hand, it
accepts that "women increasingly want to work and have
careers as well as being mothers". There is no attempt to
force women back into the home. On the contrary, the thrust of
New Labour's Welfare to Work policy has been to get lone
parents, the section of women least likely to work outside the
home, into the workforce.
Their childcare strategy in particular
is presented as a positive policy which will support families
and allow women to maintain their economic independence. And
potentially it could make an enormous difference to the lives of
working class women especially.
But at the same time, the capitalists are attempting to boost
their falling profits by demanding a reduction in the share of
wealth which goes to the working class. This has meant continued
attacks on welfare spending, with cutbacks to many of the
services and benefits which have gone some way to making life
for working class women a little bit easier. While the
government are putting forward proposals to start up after
school schemes, local authorities all over the country are
closing them down because they can't meet the running costs.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies calculates that if every
parent who was entitled to claim the new child care tax credit
did so, it would cost £4bn. That is sixteen times more than the
government is allocating.
Even this money is expected to come
from economic growth, but with a recession looming there is a
big question mark over whether child care facilities will
actually materialise and certainly over the quality of care that
will be on offer. New Labour are relying on the fact that most
parents fall back on informal care provided by other family
members, and they will not be eligible for the childcare
Even a seemingly innocuous proposal in the consultation
document to help "grandparents and other people to offer
more support to families" has a hidden agenda. Much of what
is in the document has already appeared in The Blair
a book written by Peter Mandelson before New Labour were
elected. In it he talks about strengthening the 'extended
family' so that grandparents can help with the child care and
then their children in turn will look after them when they reach
"This is what people want", he wrote. "The
role of the state is as provider of last resort. The tax and
spend implications of any other strategy would be quite
In other words women (and it is still women
who take on most of the caring responsibilities within the home)
will be expected to go out to work and, at the same time look
after children, the elderly, and take responsibility for
services which the state is no longer prepared to fund. This
will increase the burden on women within the family and place
further strains and pressures on personal relationships in
Despite patronising references to the 'sterling work' which
lone parents do in bringing up children on their own, they are
primarily viewed by the ruling class as an economic burden on
the welfare state and a 'social problem' which the political
representatives of capitalism need to 'solve' rather than
At the same time complex social problems such as crime,
truancy and drug taking are simplistically blamed on family
breakdown and bad parenting. If, New Labour argue, the family
could somehow be glued together and parents taught how to bring
up their children properly, then these problems could be solved.
What is in reality a crisis of capitalism is conveniently
repackaged as a crisis in the family, with working class parents
in particular made to feel guilty for the system's inadequacies.
Hence the emphasis on marriage.
"The evidence is that children are best brought up where
you have two natural parents and it is more likely to be a
stable family if they are married", states Jack Straw in
the introduction to Supporting Families. "It
plainly makes sense for the government to do what it can to
strengthen the institution of marriage".
In fact, the 'evidence' is dubious and at best inconclusive.
And even if it were the case that married couples were more
likely to stay together it doesn't necessarily follow that this
would be in the best interests of children. Women and children
are often subject to violence and abuse within the family.
per cent of lone parents were married at one time. Research has
shown that amicable separation and divorce can be far less
traumatic and damaging for children than living in a stressful
relationship where conflict is the norm.
Yet the government are proposing to prolong divorce
proceedings even further "to help parties consider whether
their marriage is finally over". This would do little to
encourage couples to stay together. Most relationships have
broken down irretrievably long before they reach the divorce
courts. But it could prevent everyone from moving on with their
lives, increasing tensions and conflict, which is especially
damaging for children.
Most of their proposals for strengthening marriage are just
plain daft. As well as ending 'quickie' divorce, they also
propose to do away with 'quickie' marriage by requiring couples
to give 15 days notice that they want to marry.
would be expected to visit the registrar's office and be
encouraged to participate in 'marriage preparation'. It doesn't
seem to have occurred to the authors of Supporting Families
that, with so many hoops to go through before marrying and
divorcing, this could have the opposite effect to what is
actually intended, with more couples just not bothering to get
married in the first place.
It is clear, however, that some New Labour MPs really do
believe that it is possible to legislate to change people's
personal behaviour. The New Deal is primarily motivated by the
need to cut back on benefits by encouraging, and as this isn't
working, coercing lone parents into work. Those that stay at
home to look after their children, either through choice or
because they can't get a job, are made to feel guilty for doing
The cuts to lone parent benefits, which would have saved a
mere £480 million over three years, were never simply about
short-term economic savings. They were also a crude attempt at
altering attitudes and behaviour. Women, some of the social
engineers in the government hoped, might think twice about
becoming lone parents if benefits were less generous.
Other claimants, such as the disabled, would get the message
that they could no longer expect to be dependent on the state,
but must take 'individual responsibility' for their own
situation. At the same time, the middle classes would be
reassured that their taxes were being spent on the 'deserving'
poor (i.e. those in work) and not the 'undeserving' poor (those
The cuts are now being justified after the event as 'levelling
the playing field' - proof that the government wants to support
all children regardless of family arrangement. But all the
research shows that lone parents have additional costs which
need to be met through extra benefits. Such crude attempts at
shaping people's behaviour are unlikely to have much effect in
deterring women from becoming lone parents, but they will
increase the hardships and difficulties which they and their
children have to face.
At the same time, the Child Support Act (CSA) is being used
to recreate the economic dependency of women and children on men
even when relationships have broken down. Lone parents face
draconian cuts if they refuse to name the father of their
children without 'good cause'.
Changes floated by the government
would mean those penalties coming into force at an earlier
stage. They would also restrict the use of 'good cause', placing
women and children at risk from violent partners. Even fathers
on income support are forced to pay something under the CSA. The
administration costs are higher than the amount collected but it
is supposed to enforce the idea of 'parental responsibility'.
Also unmarried fathers are to get automatic parental rights
which at the moment are only granted to married fathers. This
might seem fair and even progressive but it is mainly motivated
by financial considerations - if fathers 'feel' responsible for
their children then, maybe, they will be more likely to pay
maintenance if relationships breakdown. Of course, under the CSA
the main beneficiary is the Treasury not the children.
It is ridiculous to suppose that parental responsibility can
be legislated for in such a simple way. Personal relations,
between couples and between parents and children, are extremely
complex. People don't respond like Pavlov's dog to carrots and
sticks as some New Labour ministers seem to think.
that assume such a direct link between state intervention and
individual behaviour can often have unforeseen and harmful
consequences. Already, violent ex-partners are phoning up women,
demanding their 'rights'. It is not just the economic dependency
of the traditional family that is being reinstated here, but
patriarchal control and authority as well.
New Labour expect the family to maintain social control as
well as service the economic needs of capitalism. The emphasis
is on families disciplining children. So if they fail to go to
school or commit criminal offences, parents can be fined and
Nobody would argue against parents behaving responsibly
towards their children. But families don't exist in a vacuum,
sheltered from external social factors such as poverty,
unemployment, and a system which offers no future for the
majority of young people.
It is precisely because capitalism is unable to offer real
support for families that New Labour resort to social
authoritarianism, placing the blame for social problems
everywhere but on themselves and the system which they
represent. If individuals and families can be made to feel
responsible for their own situation then the idea of collective
struggle against the capitalist system as a whole is undermined.
But it is only through collective struggle by working class
people to change society that their needs can be meet, and
personal relations can be freed from the economic and social
constraints which capitalism currently places on them.