The Left and Marriage: Why Labour should back marriage tax credits‏

4th February, 2013 2:12 pm

This weekend we saw two interlinked stories about Tory dysfunction on marriage. However, while they infight, it may be worth considering our own stance.

Marriage equality is straightforward for all but a small minority of Labour MPs. In a free society, there needs to be a good reason why a right most of us have is denied to some. The religious freedom objections of some churches have already been addressed in the bill. Equalisation will make gay couples feel unreservedly accepted by society, and simply doesn’t affect the rest of us, unless you’re Peter Bone and want to pretend it does.

What affects more of us is marriage writ-large, and that’s where we often get tongue-tied. A Labour councillor pointed this out to me a while ago, saying that while they supported equality, our focus on such a small part of marriage was perhaps disproportionate. Further, Blue Labour’s take on family was divisive in the party. The liberal instinct on these things is of course understandable and well-meaning. While there’s a correlation between the establishment of stable, two-parent households and stability for children and wider communities, this has long been used to unfairly attack single mothers and cohabiting couples, who are usually fantastic parents. Only those who actually wish to marry should ever feel any reason to do so.

But there’s evidence that many still aspire to it. 70% of 20-35 year olds, 79% of cohabiters and 62% of unmarried parents still want to marry, according to Ipsos-MORI a few years ago. Some put off weddings because of the recession (though in some regards, the desire for stability boosted marriage). People in poorer families and areas are statistically less likely to get married than those of greater means. The tax code can’t simply create a happy family if the will isn’t already there, but for many, it appears that marriage is already a pre-existing social aspiration constrained by financial circumstance. As progressives we usually seek to intervene in such cases – dare I say that supporting marriage tax credits could be progressive too?

Look at child benefit, which we’ve recently sought to defend from Tory cuts. It’s only £20 a week (eldest child), while raising a child costs £192 a week. But it tells people we’re on their side and makes things easier while we go about the longer-term work of implementing the rest of our social and economic agenda, which helps in a broader sense. A benefit for marriage could have the same role in our social policy. We also tend to see child benefit as a positive and uplifting policy, rather than perceiving it to be coercive or preachy towards those it doesn’t help, which is often the prevailing liberal view on marriage credits.

Social conservatives have been handed a golden opportunity to make the case for marriage, something they should relish, but instead seem happy to frame their own pet cause in narrow, discriminatory terms. Cameron too seems to have shrunk from challenging us. So quickly, let’s sort out our line on this and outflank them, before they all notice.

  • Amber_Star

    Before tweaking tax allowances, look into the rules around social security, housing benefits, council tax rebates & – worst of all – the Tory benefits cap. That’s where you’ll find rules which actively encourage couples & families to split up for financial reasons. Many don’t, they try to stay together despite being penalized for so doing. Maybe Labour should try to correct these unfair rules & arbitrary caps.

    • Elliot Bidgood

      Thanks for reading, Amber Star. I’ll have to read into that.

  • Ellie

    “While there’s a correlation between the establishment of stable, two-parent households and stability for children and wider communities…”

    Yes – but it hasn’t yet been demonstrably shown that there is causation. It’s at least as likely that poverty and the accompanying financial and social insecurity is the common cause. So – we should incentivise people to be richer? By, er, giving them less money?

    “Look at child benefit, which we’ve recently sought to defend from Tory cuts. It’s only £20 a week (eldest child), while raising a child costs £192 a week. But it tells people we’re on their side”

    Yes- child benefit tells people we understand having kids costs money and we’d like to help. Whereas marriage tax breaks do not correlate with any greater financial need. In that sense, they are just as much about telling the unmarried that we are NOT on their side. Is that really what we want to be saying to thousands of people?

    If we agree marriage is enormously positive for many/most – then surely we also agree that it is its own reward? We can support and value it without making unmarried couples and families comparatively poorer. A compassionate and evidence-driven Labour party shouldn’t touch this with a ten foot pole.

    • Quiet_Sceptic

      Supporting two people costs more money than supporting one and a key feature of marriage is a sharing of financial resources, so why shouldn’t that be recognised by the tax system by allowing married couples either a transferable personal allowance or a combined married persons tax allowance?

      We have tax allowances, tax credits and benefits in recognition of other circumstances that increase the income/support necessary yet supporting a spouse goes unrecognised.

      • Brumanuensis

        That assumes that the spouse isn’t working. It’s one thing to have a transfers system that funnels resources towards children, who legally can’t work, but I question the merit of simply giving money towards members of a family who could work, but choose not to simply because their other half is in work.

      • Dave Postles

        Is the cost much more than marginal?

        • Quiet_Sceptic

          I’m going to say yes – twice the food, additional utilities costs, extra council tax, general costs of living. It adds up.

          To extend your logic, why should 2 kids cost more than 1? Heck they’re even smaller than adults, their cost should be even smaller still.

          I can’t see many on the Left who would accept that child benefit or tax credits should not reflect the number of children so seems strange to argue that two adults have the same cost of living as one.

          • Dave Postles

            You can say ‘yes’ all that you like, but the additional costs are marginal. A single person living in a one-bedroom flat pays almost as much in rent and Council tax as a couple living in a flat with a double-bedroom. The cost of food for two is marginally higher than for one – by economies of scale. The additional cost of utilities is marginally higher than the cost for one. If both are in jobs, then the proportionate costs are lower for a couple by comparison with a singleton – an acknowledged economic fact, to which Brum alludes below.

          • Quiet_Sceptic

            Council tax is 25% higher, that’s a bit more than marginal, you wouldn’t call a 25% cut in benefits or increase in tax ‘marginal’.

            Economies of scale in food? Unless you’re routinely wasting huge amounts of food then two people are going to have roughly twice the food budget, nothing marginal at all.

            Utilities is mixed – if you’re on a water meter then your water bill is going to double, gas and electric depends on lifestyle and whether the home is occupied more. Again, unlikely to be a ‘marginal’ increase.

            The beauty of a transferable or joint married couples allowance is that as soon as both people are working then there’s no allowance to transfer but when one spouse is not it recognises that the married couple have a higher cost of living than a single person.

          • Dave Postles

            Yes, it is marginal, because it’s not 100% representing two people by comparison with 1. Your analogy with a cut in benefits or increase in tax is inappropriate in this context.
            I think you are wrong on the cost of the food, hence the adage that two can eat as cheaply as one. The cost of food to singletons, because it is in small quantities, tends to be higher – no bogoffs or bulk purchases.

            Utilities: yes, the additional cost is likely to be marginal, not twice the amount.

            One of the principal criticisms of the married couples’ allowance in the past has been that it discriminated against singletons.

    • Elliot Bidgood

      Thanks for reading Ellie.

      The correlation-causation point is a concern to me. I still think it’s a need the party should be willing to support upfront, especially when there is an income-linked “marriage gap” making it more common among people of greater means. I’d cede that financial support before marriage to allow people to reach that point may logically work better, it’s just a question of how we’d go about administering a specific policy intervention aimed at those for whom it’s an aim denied. Like I said, the broad thrust of Labour social policy makes a larger, if more indirect and less-felt, impact. For the same reason, the Tory stance on this is inevitably flawed – the tax credit is one of few things they offer couples, compared to the tonnage of everything else they’re proposing that fails to help or has a negative impact.

      There’s also some evidence that family breakups may be more common in cases of cohabitation without marriage, and if some unmarried couples/parents wish to be but aren’t for reasons that are partly or primarily financial, then increased financial support from the government could help in those instances.

      • Redshift1

        If the causality is actually that poorer, more unstable families are more likely to result in relationship breakdown between the adults (which seems quite likely to me at least), then actually like the Tories you have causality the wrong way around here.

        It isn’t that marriage helps create a stable environment and should therefore be encouraged. It’s that a stable environment helps make couples lead comfortable lives and helps prevent relationship breakdown.

  • Dave Postles

    ‘dare I say that supporting marriage tax credits could be progressive too?’
    Well, you have, but why? It just seems invidious to me as well as inappropriate right now, as Amber and Ellie suggest below. Whom do we need to assist the most at this time – surely the young and single struggling to find employment?

    • Elliot Bidgood

      Thanks for reading Dave.

      We often support policies that are targeted or are redistributive towards specific groups that it may be necessary to aid, without it being intended as a snub to others – I accept if often is seen that way, but that’s a much larger perceptive problem that often comes with the territory with social democracy. As for whether it’s an absolute priority right now, that’s more difficult, but I think we should be less hostile to the idea in principle.

      • Dave Postles

        It’s less redistributive than discriminatory – against single people and people in partnerships.

  • Edward Carlsson Browne

    “dare I say that supporting marriage tax credits could be progressive too?”

    Dare all you like, but as you yourself note, “People in poorer families and areas are statistically less likely to get married than those of greater means.”

    Tax credits for the haves at the expense of the have-nots is the exact opposite of progressive. Celebrating marriage is fine, but it shouldn’t be a justification for idiotic policy.

  • Rachel

    There is no equality in giving tax breaks to married people only. If you want to give tax breaks to couples with children then fine, but do not make a marriage certificate the deciding factor.

    Some people choose not to marry precisely because of the religious dogma it is part of. If you are seriously proposing that married couples should get tax breaks, then pass the law to allow straight people to choose civil partnership as a non-religious option.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    I’m still unconvinced by the whole nature of this argument, but perhaps because I see marriage as a religious ceremony and not a legal institution (it is of course in practice both).

    If the law were arranged so that EVERY couple (straight, gay, religious, or not) had to have a civil partnership to address the legal institution, and then those that wish additionally hold a religious marriage ceremony, would that not be better? ie the legal part is a civil partnership, conferring EXACTLY the same rights and responsibilities (inheritance, tax, benefits, children, etc. Literally exactly the same) for couples of all “persuasions”.

    Then, any argument about religious recognition of their union is between the couple and their chosen faith. The Government is completely neutral, and removed from the argument.

    • Elliot Bidgood

      Thanks for reading Jaime.

      I’ve often thought something along those lines – that in order to be logically consistent with the current position, “civil partnership” would have to be the only designation registry offices would grant while “marriages” would be the domain of the church. But that’s not been the case for a long time, we already in effect have civil marriage and religious marriage, and it would be extremely unpopular with straight people if their current right to “marry” in a secular setting were taken away. So instead, since the state already performs secular marriages, and it has no basis for denying them to gays, we need equalisation there. Beyond that, it’s up to the churches to decide whether to perform gay marriages as well, but it’s unclear why the religious freedom of churches that oppose performing them should trump that of those that want to perform them.

      • Dave Postles

        Marriages in churches are at the dispensation of the state, which is why some denominations in the recent past have not been allowed to perform marriage ceremonies. All registration in churches must be registered by the civil registry as well. The prerogative of churches to perform marriages is now simply a devolved administration.

  • Monkey_Bach

    What’s the position on polygamous and polyandrous marriage? Shouldn’t the law be changed to accommodate such various arrangements? If you have multiple wives or several husbands shouldn’t you get more tax credits to help keep you glued together? Just joking. But why should married couples enjoy tax breaks or financial rewards not granted to unmarried cohabiting couples? Why should cohabiting couples, or single people, have to pay income tax to subsidise married couples who may already be much better off and wealthier than they are or ever will be? And are people really naive enough to believe that a few extra quid a week will help persuade people to get married or help secure marriages and discourage divorce or separation once the thrill has gone?

    How very Iain Duncan Smith.


  • UKAzeri

    Child benefit is primarily aimed at one goal – more children, ie more workers ( in its most literal sense- humans have far more to offer each other than waged labour). Also child benefit is open to all whether single or not ( subject to income though) However marriage in itslef doesnt guarantee any positive social outcomes. However the biggest challenge as many pointed out in the comments is unfairness to cohabiting couples and single people in particular.


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