Friday 24 April 2009

Getting over the fear of the family

If and when someone with nothing better to do compiles the lexicon of the most (over) used phrases of the New Labour era, ‘hard-working families’ will feature pretty prominently. This symbolises more than a lack of imagination on the part of government speech writers; it is evidence of a significant political weakness that runs right across the left as a whole.

For the left finds it impossible to talk about ‘the family’. Children are fine, as are families plural, but not the singular family unit. In many ways this is understandable: the family is so steeped in the notion of a married husband and wife with 2.4 children that the left does not want to stigmatise or exclude the many people who, through choice or circumstance, do not fit into this fading traditional ideal. But the upshot of this is that the politically territory has been almost completely ceded to the right, who have no such quibbles trumpeting the primacy of the married nuclear family.

The problem, though, is that the concept of ‘the family’ holds a totemic power, which ‘hard working families’ doesn’t. It has an emotional resonance about love and nurture – as Tim Horton says in his essay in the spring edition of the Fabian Review – that the left’s position misses out on, and to its abiding cost.

The new Fabian Review, published today, tries to provide a way out of this. We need a new political narrative that is able to talk about ‘the family’ without having to use inverted commas; in a way that is sensitive to our diversity without leading to charges of being anti-family. So alongside Tim Horton explaining what this new message should look like, we have: Kitty Ussher and Ed Straw on the need for a more nuanced position on marriage; Mary Riddell interviewing Tory family policy guru Iain Duncan Smith; Barry Sheerman on schools; and Denis MacShane of the role of the Royal Family in all this...and much more besides.

Read all about it.


Calix said...

Very interesting.

I guess one of the hang-ups with the word 'Family' for Labour is it was used so centrally by Thatcher in opposition to Society. You were either for one or for the other. Perhaps now 20 years later it is time to re-claim it and destroy that artificial opposition.

Zio Bastone said...

Lakoff, whom Tim Horton references but seems not to understand, tries to show (using CMT) that ‘politics’ is a target domain which you understand and talk about as though it were the source domain of ‘the family’. In creating a metaphor in this way you either map onto politics a ‘nurturant’ view of how one ought to behave or you go for something ‘stern’. In other words what Lakoff is attempting to demonstrate is how one thinks metaphorically about politics, NOT how one thinks politically about the family.

Calix references a much more relevant and useful opposition, that between ‘the family’ and ‘society’ within Thatcherism. That might want some teasing out.

Insofar as Thatcherism was not philosophically incoherent (ie to some extent) enterprising ‘individuals’ became the main conceptual primitive and ‘the family’ became the highest molecular unit. Thereafter things became molar, distributional. So at the level of public space the polity as an ‘imaginary institution’ (to misuse Castoriadis) more or less disappeared, leaving ‘society’ as a sort of pre-biotic soup in which all that really mattered was the number of wealthy good Samaritans per head of population, or something of that sort.

(Incidentally Ayckbourn’s 1987 play, A Small Family Business, nicely skewers some of the embarrassing conflicts between public morality, private greed and ‘the individual’ which this sort of thing threw up.)

So ‘the family’ has a history. And I can’t see that using ‘the new progressive politics of the family’ to ‘take on the right’s agenda’ amounts to very much more than stealing ‘education, education, education’ from Romano Prodi in 1997 or Obama’s dog whistle use of ‘change’ in 2009. It seems just tatterdemalion.

Or is this purely, as so often, about winning market share?

Zio Bastone said...

Re: my Ayckbourn reference, I meant (of course) 'the family', not 'the individual'.