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.