Keir Starmer’s first ‘conference’ speech as leader provoked controversy with some in the party when he promised that Labour would be the party of “opportunity, family and security”. Ambivalence or even hostility on the left to the family goes back a long way, with socialist thinkers such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Robert Owen wanting to abolish the family altogether. The family has often been seen as inherently reactionary, patriarchal and conservative.
While many critiques of the family have gone too far, we should not turn a blind eye to the problems of the family as an institution. It can be the site of terrible abuse and violence, and much better support is needed for the victims of this. The family can also be a great source of great happiness, connection and mutual support.
Today, many in the Labour Party feel uncomfortable talking about the family. Some feel that explicit support for the family implies moral judgment about what a family should look like, whether that is in terms of marriage, LGBT+ parents or otherwise.
It is quite wrong for a government to make moral judgements about what a family should look like. Families today come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and all families should be supported. Labour should take a progressive and inclusive approach to support all families.
The personal is the political, and so it is with the family. How the family operates and interacts with society more generally influences the extent to which opportunity and equality for all can be achieved. A focus on the family should not be seen as opposed to class-based politics but complementary to it and fundamental to promoting equality.
The Labour Party has, correctly, trumpeted the benefits of its policies for the family, whether that was the introduction of the NHS in 1945 or new family-friendly legislation introduced by New Labour. However, Labour needs to go further and set out a clear progressive vision of how families can be supported and helped to thrive.
Take childcare. Women disproportionately shoulder the burden of childcare, including during the last national Covid lockdown. Better Daddies, a new campaign to help fathers share equally in caring for their children, believes that more action in this area would be good for fathers, their partners, their children and gender equality in the workplace.
It would mean that the burden of childcare is more evenly shared between parents, providing more scope for women to work full-time, longer hours or have more leisure or study time. Greater paternal involvement in childcare should also reduce discrimination against women in the workforce, as the amount of time that men and women take off for parenthood becomes more even.
Another area where Labour could make a real difference to families is parenting and relationship support for parents, which would be hugely helpful to many but is currently unaffordable. At a time when Covid is putting a particular strain on family and relationships, there is an especially strong case for parenting and relationship support from the government.
Supporting the types of policies that Better Daddies advocates, such as better parental leave for fathers, would be highly progressive. But these policies need to be part of a holistic vision of how Labour would support families and, crucially, social, couple and family relationships. Jon Cruddas began to develop such a programme as head of Labour’s policy review before the 2015 election, and hopefully this work will be picked by Keir Starmer’s head of policy, Claire Ainsley, who has a history of working on family policy.
Failure to think of the impact of new policies on the family can be their downfall. Take, for example, the policy due to Covid of not allowing birth partners to be present during labour or at scans, which is surely disproportionate. Similarly, guidelines for the new lockdown initially prevented two parents with their children meeting outdoors to exercise. All policy-making needs to be more focused on the family, such as supporting Rainbow Families initiatives, which provide a social group for LGBT+ parents and their children.
It is possible to support the family without stigmatisation or prescribing what a family should look like. Not only that, but a progressive approach to the family is vital to ensuring a more equal and fair society. Labour should not be afraid of supporting a progressive vision of the family to help everyone lead the fullest life possible.
Omar Salem is founder of Better Daddies, which is campaigning for more support for fathers to play a greater role in caring for their children and household responsibilities. You can sign the Better Daddies Charter here.