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Issue 34, January 1999

New Labour's family values

    A 'family crisis'?
    Social authoritarianism

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 welfare policy. CHRISTINE THOMAS writes.

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 cautiously. 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. Gays and lesbians will continue to be stigmatised and discriminated against.

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-parent families.

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 marital breakdown. 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 the family.

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 difficulty. 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 personal relationships.

  top     A 'family crisis'?

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 subsidy.

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 Revolution, 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 old age.

  "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 unsupportable". 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 general.

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 support. 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.

  top     Social authoritarianism

"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. Fifty 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. Both partners 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 so.

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 (ie those in work) and not the 'undeserving' poor (those on benefit).

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. And proposals 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 even imprisoned.

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.


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