By James Bevan
Having grown up in a single parent family, in one of the poorest parts of the country, with a period on long term benefits, many right-wing media commentators (our self-appointed moral guardians, guiding us through the fallout from the riots) have been good enough to inform me that I was raised as part of the British underclass. My family, I am told, represents the failings of a morally bankrupt nation.
As the dust settles on the riots and the battle to control the past rages, we have witnessed a vicious assault on the some of the most disempowered members of our society. Reactionary commentators – safe in the knowledge that many single parents have little opportunity and no platform to challenge their groundless assault – have used the disorder as pretext to unleash their worst pre-conceptions in an attempt to scapegoat millions of families.
In a frenzied attack on single parent families, Melanie Philips decided to give facts a day off and made the assumption that “most of these children [rioters] come from lone-mother households. And the single most crucial factor behind all this mayhem is the willed removal of the most important thing that socialises children and turns them from feral savages into civilised citizens: a father who is a fully committed member of the family unit”.
The same theme was picked up by Max Hastings who asks “So who is to blame? The breakdown of families, the pernicious promotion of single motherhood as a desirable state, the decline of domestic life so that even shared meals are a rarity, have all contributed importantly to the condition of the young underclass”. Even the seemingly avuncular Andrew Neil tweeted: “Calls from [Theresa] May downwards for parents of rioters to get a grip. But won’t many/most have only one parent — and she will have lost control?”
These stunning attacks have been made despite the fact that it is impossible to know the family make up of those involved in the riots. Yet commentators felt it is acceptable to point the figure at single parent families, despite the fact that the vast majority are making extraordinary sacrifices to give their children the best possible start in life, against overwhelming odds.
I witnessed how hard this struggle is during the ten years my mother worked tirelessly to provide a home from which my brother and I could thrive. She ensured that we always got to school on time, whilst volunteering as a school governor and helping out in many other ways whenever the school needed it. Our home was loving, encouraging and headed by an outstanding role model. All this was achieved whilst living in poverty, in the South Wales Valleys, one of the most deprived parts of the country. Yet thanks to her sacrifice, and decent free public services, we have both been fortunate enough to go to university and find gainful employment.
The gaping chasm between my experience of being raised in a single parent family, which is shared by millions in the UK, and the vitriol expounded by right wing commentators has astounded me and the people I know who grew up in similar circumstances. Extreme views – that many hoped had rightly been consigned to the past – have been dusted off and found a willing audience amongst some policy makers. In reaction to the riots David Cameron listed “children without fathers” as evidence of Britain’s “slow-motion moral collapse”, with a link seemingly being drawn to “some of the worst aspects of human nature”. There is little doubt that the idea of feckless single mothers causing the downfall of our society is back in vogue.
Yet these assumptions are not only offensive, but also wildly inaccurate. As Gingerbread point out there are 1.9 million single parents in Britain today, 56.7% of whom are in work, up 12% in the last 14 years. Whilst the more pernicious insinuations regarding young single mothers are even further from the mark, as just 3% are teenagers. The average age of single mothers is 37, and the majority (55%) had their children within marriage.
However, what does connect many single parents is not a lack of moral character or disregard for their child’s welfare, but poverty. Half of children in single parent families are poor, compared to 25% of children in couple families. Yet, despite glib tough talk from ministers, sadly work does not provide a guaranteed escape. The poverty rate for single parent families where the parent works part time is 29% and 21% where the parent works full time.
The gross inaccuracy of this debate and the shocking resonance it has struck with many people in power is symptomatic of a wider disconnection between those who govern and the millions of British people facing daily struggles, particularly those who are working class.
The real fears families face, such as how to pay next moths rent or rising gas bill, have never been experienced by the vast majority of our political elite or the senior journalists and civil servants that exist in the same bubble. This has resulted in a democratic deficit, where the voices of millions of people struggling to make ends meet has been ostracised, as power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a wealthy – often privately educated – elite.
This disconnection was painfully obvious at the height of the riots. The scene of ministers and MPs (with the notable exception of David Lammy) being almost literally parachuted into working class communities displayed a vivid and telling juxtaposition between policy makers on the one hand and the besieged communities on the other. This is not to say that middle class campaigners cannot become great politicians. However, if we are to achieve a more representative democracy and avoid the pitfalls of demonization on the one hand and moral relativism on the other, then it is essential that our leaders, in all fields, are drawn from every walk of life.
It is understandable that those in power could struggle to get to grips with a rapidly escalating crisis, like the riots, but the fact that so many of our leaders have lost touch with the lives of literally millions of people sharing the same city as parliament alluded to a far more serious failing.
At times it feels as if some MPs and sections of the media are talking about a foreign country when they describe day to day life in the poorest areas of our country. Yet this does not prevent some of them making summary judgements and condemning the 3 million British children being raised by single parents, whilst conveniently overlooking the poverty and structural inequality that has come to define areas like Hackney, Toxteth and Tottenham.
Nothing excuses the mindless violence and criminality carried out during the riots. But equally, nothing will excuse our society if we exploit the riots to attack the disempowered or fail to learn the real lessons from these tragic events to prevent them happening again. That is why those calling for a full inquiry into the causes of the riots, including Ed Miliband, are right to do so. We need to hear from the people who live in the communities that have been shaken by the by the riots to find out how they can be helped to rebuild.
But that is only the start. If we are to move forward then an inquiry has to be the first step towards real and meaningful involvement for working class people in politics. Only this will ensure we tackle the crisis of representation that is threatening to undermine our democracy and help to ensure that policy is decided in the interests of the many, not at the whim of right wing bullies.