Party Manifestos and the Family

Party Manifestos and the Family

An examination of different parties’ policy statements around ‘supporting families,’ and how such proposals would play out in the early years relationships between parents and their children

What’s been said?

In our previous article we considered what the seven parties with the most candidates standing said, or did not say, about home education in their manifestos. Here we look at the policies to ‘support’ families being put forward by those parties, how they differ, and what those differences reveal about the values underpinning their social ideals.

This is very relevant to HE families, because the political pressure put on them for a decade and a half now is not an isolated issue. It is in fact an expression of an old debate around a very simple concept: do citizens and therefore the family exist to serve the state, or does the state exist to serve the citizens and their families? Most people believe it is the latter, but history from ancient times until today records that the majority of rulers have lived by the former rule. It could therefore be argued that the fundamental values held by every ruler, aspiring political leaders included, can be understood through the lens of their attitude to their citizens and especially to their citizens’ children.

Before looking at how these values are expressed in the manifestos, two points need to be noted here. Firstly, the links for accessing the manifestos are available on this page. Secondly, a note about the comparative length of the PDF versions of the manifestos, and where to access important detail. At first glance, the Labour party’s is the shortest (just 24 pages), with the Liberal Democrats’ being the longest at 117 pages, mainly because they include their “More detail” sections. In contrast, the “small print” details in Labour’s proposals can only be found in the website version. For example, the commitment to “improve data sharing across services, with a single unique identifier, to better support children and families,” is not included in the PDF, but under Break down barriers to opportunity » Best start in life. Interestingly, this section is primarily about “early years” and includes no explanation that anyone under the age of 18 will retain the “single unique identifier” [SUI] until that age, if not throughout their lives.

Now to explore how the parties under consideration view what is best for children and their families in the pre-school “early years.” The point at issue, though unstated by the main parties, is whether or not it is better for very young children to spend time with one or both parents in those early years, or whether it is better for the state for them to be looked after by various strangers. To help readers check out this area, we have compiled extracts from the seven manifestos into a single PDF document. For simplicity, this contains only those sections most immediately relevant to the matter under discussion here.

Here then are key sections from each party’s “Early years” section, but all quotations should be read in context – page numbers are [original PDF/our compiled document]:

Labour: [na/6]

Best start in life
High-quality early education and childcare is a crucial opportunity to transform life chances. Too often it is unavailable, or unaffordable.
As an initial step, Labour will open an additional 3,000 nurseries through upgrading space in primary schools, to deliver the extension of government funded hours families are entitled to.
Supporting children in the early part of their life also means giving parents the flexibility they need to care for their children. Labour will review the parental leave system, so it best supports working families, within our first year in government.”

Conservatives: [18/9]

Our plan to support families
We are delivering the largest ever expansion of childcare in history:
• Working parents of two-year-olds are now able to access 15 hours of free childcare, with over 200,000 two-year-olds already benefitting from the offer.
• From September 2024, eligible parents of children between nine months and two years old will also be able to access 15 hours free childcare.
• From September 2025, all eligible parents with children from nine months old to when they start school will be able to access 30 hours of free childcare a week.
• Once the roll out is completed, families will save an average of £6,900 per year.”

Liberal Democrats: [46/17]

9 Families, Children and Young People
Families come in all shapes and sizes, and parents should have the support and flexibility to juggle work with parenting as they see fit.
Flexible, affordable childcare and early years education is a critical part of our economic infrastructure and helps close the attainment gap between rich and poor. It gives parents more choice over how to organise their lives and helps them return to work if they want to. Lack of access to affordable childcare is a key driver of the gender pay gap.
But affordable childcare is only part of the picture. We will also overhaul parental leave to give parents a genuine choice over how to manage things in the first months of their child’s life.”

Green Party: [29/21]

Early years
Pre-school education should be focused on play and on supporting young children to safely explore the world around them. It can also assist families to access work and other opportunities.
Greens MPs will advocate:
• For £1.4bn per year to be invested by local authorities in Sure Start Centres.
• In negotiation with the sector, to extend the outgoing government’s offer of childcare to 35 hours per week from nine months.”

Reform UK: [16/24]

Britain has one of the Highest Family Breakdown Rates in the Western World
Reform UK believes that strong families are the bedrock of a thriving society – we will support family formation and give parents back control.
Support Marriage Through the Tax System
As soon as finances allow, introduce a UK 25% transferable marriage tax allowance. This would mean no tax on the first £25,000 of income for either spouse. This will help make work pay and incentivise people trapped on benefits back into the workplace.
Choice for Stay-at-Home Mums or Dads
The majority of mothers would choose to stay at home more if they could. Front-loading the Child Benefit system for children aged 1-4 would give parents the choice to spend more time with their children.”

Workers Party of Britain: [na/27]

Supporting the family
Profit-seeking business provides (often unstable) jobs and consumer products and services but it free rides society. It treats labour as just another input. We see the results in the degradation of community and the way that individuals are atomised. This becomes of critical importance when we look at the bed rock of society – the working class family. Presenting work as liberation and appealing to the very reasonable desire of women to have an equal and independent existence, liberal society and business have forced us into a very unequal situation where parents sometimes work not only twice over but with multiple jobs just to keep children housed, fed and clothed….
Our policy is one of social investment integrated with our cradle-to-the-grave welfare commitment. We will make it much easier for families to be able to afford to have children in safe, supportive and secure conditions and to care for elderly relatives in their own households through our redistributive economics, our housing policies and through material incentives. We will extend the period in which at least one parent in a household can spend free time caring for children under seven without material loss. We reject that anti-human negative stance towards children of radical Greens and many liberals. We will support not only families with children but young people wanting to start a family earlier.”

Social Democratic Party: [13/29]

Government must defend and support traditional family life whenever possible, particularly in welfare and economic policy, education and housing. We will shelter British families from the economic and social pressures fracturing our society and seek to rebuild a prosperous and happier nation with policies that place the family at the heart of national life.
[Selected points]
The tax and benefit system will offer greater protection and support for family life. Couples raising children together (comprising a basic rate tax payer and a non tax payer) will benefit from full sharing of tax allowances.
• All parents of dependent children under school age may elect to work from home three days a week for at least two years, unless the nature of their work makes this impracticable.
• Government policy in all domains will be subject to the basic test as to whether it is supportive of the family as the fundamental foundation of society.”

Why does it matter?

Most of the policies cited above fall into one or other of two very different approaches. The more mainstream the party, the more “supporting families” is viewed in terms of enabling both parents to get back into work as soon as possible after a child is born. In fact, amongst these parties the contest is around how young they might promise to enable children to be placed in fully-funded childcare. The three main parties are essentially in agreement on this, but it is the Lib Dems who are the most honest about the values which underlie that narrative, “Flexible, affordable childcare and early years education is a critical part of our economic infrastructure and helps close the attainment gap between rich and poor.” Really?

Whilst the Greens and the SDP seem to try and straddle the dividing line between the two, the most strongly dissenting voices come, unsurprisingly, from parties considered to be the most radical. It is important to note that whilst these occupy very different places on the political spectrum, both of them are also the most supportive of traditional family life. Nigel Farage’s Reform UK is quite clear about its position; strong families are the bedrock of a thriving society. The party back this up practically with a promise of “transferable marriage tax allowance,” and changing the Child Benefit provision to give parents of younger children “the choice to spend more time with their children.” Both commitments would also benefit HE families, incidentally.

George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain is less nuanced, but contains similar themes: “This becomes of critical importance when we look at the bed rock of society – the working class family.” They too promise to make it possible that “at least one parent in a household can spend free time caring for children” though their commitment extends up to the age of seven rather than just four.

Such consensus between political opposites may surprise some, but should enlighten all. It points to the fact that the centre ground of society has shifted in recent decades to a place where the family is no longer valued by mainstream politicians as it once was. There are doubtless multiple reasons for this, but it is now not uncommon to hear citizens, parents included, being categorised as either economically active or economically inactive. In recent years, diminishing value is assigned to the invaluable but less immediately quantifiable contribution of stay at home carers of both young and old, and the spectre of being an economic burden on the state is implicit. Dispersed families and the normalising of two-wage households as a perceived near-necessity of modern life all play into a very different socio-political landscape, one which is brought under the microscope in F.S. Michael’s book, “Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything”, first published in 2011.

In essence, her argument is that in the Middle Ages, the prevailing culture which shaped (Western) societies was religious. Even for those who did not fully subscribe to this, this was the dominant spirit of the age, or Zeitgeist – the monoculture – that dominated everyone’s life. Galileo marked the start of a transition into the scientific monoculture which took its place, and that has since been displaced by an “economic story” which now dominates all our lives. In the 4 minute video below, Michaels explains her thesis for a TED Talent Search Talk in 2012.

The following snippets are taken from the fourth chapter, “Your Relationships With Others and the Natural World.”

“Your kin relationships were once the glue that held society together. Friendships were considered luxuries, but kin relationships were about survival in an uncertain world. Kin were the people who were obligated to help you and who you were obligated to help when catastrophe struck…”

“Then the story changed.
The economic story says that among your own kind, competition matters more than cooperation, and that you’re motivated to look after your own interests, constantly calculating what’s in it for you, just like everyone else. Being a member of a group no longer means that you are part of something bigger than yourself…”

“In the meantime, markets keep developing for what used to happen at home for free. You realize you can hire people to cook your meals, care for your children, look after your ageing relatives, clean your house, do your tax return, walk the dog, mow the lawn, and prune the shrubs. Outsourcing domestic life helps you cope with the time pressures you’re under.”

“As work and home demand more and more of your time and energy, you may find your significant relationships becoming secondary. It’s not that you want to drift away from your spouse, family and close friends, but without spending time and energy on those relationships, they’re in danger of fading. In the economic story, rewards in society are based on your performance in your paid job, after all – not on what’s going on in the rest of your life.”

The focus on funding childcare in all the main parties’ manifestos illustrate that the majority of politicians assume that everyone buys into the dominant economic monoculture mindset. Worse than that, these leaders consider those who refuse to offer up their families on the altar of economics as a threat to the success of their plans to “make Britain the best place to live.” They fear those who choose to live differently, because they might demonstrate to others that there is an alternative way to live.

What can I do?

Many home educating families will have experienced some sense of pressure to conform and buy into the prevailing narrative, though they may not have clearly identified the root causes of such pressures. In the light of what has been described above, it may be helpful to look again at the overarching message behind the economic ‘help’ to ‘support’ their family which is on offer in the manifestos, and consider their own reactions to this..

As noted in the previous Byte, politics is not merely two-dimensional. This is illustrated again by the attitude of political parties to early years care. We see the bigger more influential parties trying to put more attractive lyrics to very similar tunes. All say they will “support families” to access childcare, and there is no difference between left and right. And the voices saying that strong, fully functional families are a vital bedrock of society are those considered to be on the political margins – at both sides of the map!

Few seem to remember that not many decades ago, it was not essential for both parents to work in order to make ends meet. The majority of babies and young children were looked after by a parent or another family member – as were ageing grandparents. And few are asking whether the sea change in attitudes to early years and childcare is really a good thing for the children, the elderly and for society as a whole.

The answer to our opening question about whether a state serves its citizens or vice versa will depend on where a respondent stands on the second axis of political values. Those who believe that families always need the state’s support and guidance, will say that childcare is an essential right of the child; those who believe families will do much better when broadly left alone by the state, will say that state-funded childcare should be provided only when absolutely necessary.

To the unevidenced assertion “the best place for a child to learn is in school,” there has now been added, “Childcare is important… to give every child the best possible start in life.” This is not simply unevidenced, but it runs counter to research. Written in 2015 by a business consultant with personal experience of home educating, “Swedish daycare: International example or cautionary tale?” is the first of two articles which looks back at the outcomes of the first forty years of state funded daycare in Sweden. If you have time to read either, you may be able to help others see why the popular political offer is not in the best interests of their children.