Friday 19 August 2011

Don't mention the family!

Guest post by Sunder Katwala, former General Secretary of the Fabians

Oh no! Don’t mention the family! Though I may have mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it, as Basil Fawlty once said of the war. The New Statesman has a rather eye-catching cover to promote its post-riot wares this week. But it was the tag-line which caught my eye.

We dare ten left-wing thinkers to break the family values taboo

A taboo. A forbidden topic, which can never be spoken of without ostracism from the tribe.

“Don’t mention the family” has apparently been an unwritten rule of the left. That is the headline introducing the feature from New Statesman editor Jason Cowley, explaining the magazine’s challenge, asking “can the left talk about these subjects without channeling the Daily Mail”.

Hands up, it’s a fair cop. Until this summer, I was running one of the major left-of-centre think-tanks for the last seven years at the Fabian Society.

If there is a taboo among the thinking left about talking about the family, then it must be partly my fault. So, why did we refuse to talk about the family, about values, and the role of fathers? Was it benign neglect or an ideological blindspot, or a more sinister agenda to undermine social institutons?

Whatever the cause, perhaps it is time to turn myself in for causing the riots.

But keeping a subject taboo could never really be the work of one institution alone. It wouldn’t be nearly enough for me to insist on turning a deaf ear to all offers to write Fabian outputs about why family matters. We would need a broad front - a collective, tight-knit conspiracy of silence not to mention the family, so that we would all respond to any questions about it by saying “look, sorry, I think you’ll find that’s a question for the political right”. In a concerted push to keep the family off the agenda of public debate, it would probably be advisable to have regular meetings between the think-tanks, ministerial advisers, trade unions and civic campaigners on feminism, poverty and inequality to make sure we would all hold the line. We would have to make sure that the Staggers itself wouldn’t break ranks and, these days, you would need the main bloggers to join the omerta club too.

Some people seem to think that this is pretty much precisely what has been going on.

Melanie Phillips can give you chapter and verse. The blogger Guido Fawkes regularly propagates the same meme, characteristically tweeting to me only last weekend that the “Fabian kulturkampf against the family" for the last century now reaching its final stages.

Now the New Statesman seems to have discovered the conspiracy too.

But the truth, dear reader, is that we failed.


This “taboo” on discussing family values on the left has been observed mainly in the breach across most of the last twenty years. It is a funny old taboo when t would seem to be all but impossible to find any significant institution or strand of thought within the thinking left which has been observing it.

Unless, that is, the real conspiracy here has been most cunningly disguised – by devising a smokescreen of a seemingly endless series of publications, speeches, conferences and seminars on the subject of the family, no doubt to throw the gullible off the scent.

One counter-intuitive way to police this taboo on family values was to produce a “family special issue” of the Fabian Review. Its cover line: FAMILY VALUES: the left’s winning ticket?

You can read the issue here.

My former colleague Tim Horton wrote several thousand words acknowledging the ambivalence still felt by some on the left about “the family” and setting out why policies to support families also required the left’s own account of family values, to avoid the left’s account of family simply becoming an “arid” one about the family as a transmission mechanism of advantage and disadvantage.

Horton set out why a values-based account of family matters, writing:

The Government and Labour Party talk about ‘children’ and talk about ‘families’ (and, famously, ‘hard-working families’). Focusing policy on children is surely right. That the priority should be to support all children, not pick and choose which children to support depending on the relationship status of their parents, is an important fairness principle. But talking about ‘children and families’ isn’t enough. ‘The family’ is an incredibly important and resonant ideal in society. While that ideal might be vaguely (though decreasingly) attached to an image of a nuclear family, its strongest images and resonances are less about family structure than about duties of care, nurture, love and all that is dear to us in our personal relationships. The word ‘families’ does not tap into that imagery or emotional resonance: ‘the family’ does.

But the Fabians were far from alone in identifying family as an important focus for the left.

I remember the ippr pamphlet ‘Daddy dearest: active fatherhood and public policy’ well – because my Fabian colleagues were kind enough to give me a copy as I headed off on paternity leave for the first time. (It was a good read on policy, but I remember ‘What to Expect: the first year’ being of more practical use that month). That was just one output of a consistent ippr focus on the role of the family in social policy, often returning to the question of fathers, including ‘Men and their Children: proposals for public policy’ (1996) and ‘Fathers Figure’ (2000) on how policy should accommodate and promote the changing role of fathers in public policy.

Just after the publication of the Social Justice Commission in the 1990s, ippr published a response from the commission from two of the great left thinkers, AH Halsey and Michael Young. Their 1995 monograph ‘Family and Community Socialism’ “looks at the family as a unit and the need to support it through government measures and ensure its survival in modern society”.

Clearly, those two sociological greats of the twentieth century left didn’t get the memo about the taboo either.

Nor did Demos. One of the constants across the think-tank’s different reinventions has been a focus on the family. Current Demos director Kitty Ussher was among the contributors to the Fabian family special issue. This had also been a major theme of their earliest publications from Helen Wilkinson and Geoff Mulgan, though the pro-marriage agenda in reports like ‘The proposal: giving marriage back to the people’ (1997) had its more offbeat moments. Demos joined ippr in often focusing on potential dilemmas in promoting family-friendly policies with the modern economy in a series of reports such as ‘Family Business’ (2000) and ‘The other glass ceiling: the domestic politics of parenting’ (2006). Cherie Blair spoke on that theme and the role of fathers to the think-tank the following year.

A later Demos director Richard Reeves had earlier written a ground-breaking 2002 report ‘Dad’s Army’, for the Work Foundation, setting out how the responsibilities of the working father were not yet on the corporate radar. He returned to the clash between the demands of family and the economy in the 2004 Fabian collection ‘Family Fortunes’, at that time billed as a New Statesman columnist and self-identifying as a social democrat, quoting Gloria Steinem: “The majority absolutely believes that women can do what men can do. The next step is to believe that men can do what women can do”.

As Zohra Moosa tweeted with regard to the New Statesman cover, “pretty sure left-wing feminists have consistently been talking about family values for, oh, forever”.

Take Katherine Rake, who headed the UK’s main feminist campaigning body, the Fawcett Society, for seven years. So what did she do next?

She became Chief Executive of the Family and Parenting Institute, clearly in the belief that advocating for the family and advancing feminism could be complementary causes, rather than in conflict. I just hope that the FPI does not find the “taboo” too much of a block on its “campaigns to build a family friendly society”, or its research “offering insights into family life”.

The Smith Institute’s contribution to taboo reinforcement included jointly publishing, alongside the Centre for Social Justice, or Graham Allan and Iain Duncan Smith’s report “Early Interventions: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens”, as part of its research programme on Education and Families in 2008.

More recently, Blue Labour has made a politics of “faith, flag and family”, relationships and reciprocity, part of its pitch. It is true that this has been contentious. I myself, in a previous blog post, was a bit unclear about what Jonathan Rutherford meant by his discussion of the decline of patriarchy. Rutherford has explained that he is advocating a shared politics of parenting for men and women, with which few social democrats could object – writing that “Labour needs a new patrimony that offers the world equally to its daughters”.

There were different drivers towards making family more central to the debates around the left since the mid-1990s.

An engagement with the family theme was an important strand of the left’s shift to the centre and engagement with communitarianism in the early and mid-1990s, where New Labour emulated Clinton’s New Democrats. EJ Dionne’s 1992 book ‘Why Americans Hate Politics’ was influential on both sides of the Atlantic, arguing that “while the left’s core programmes were broadly popular, the left had stopped justifying its efforts in the name of values to which most Americans subscribed – work, family stability, consequences for criminal behaviour, and a respect for the old-fashioned bonds of locality and neighbourhood”.

If there was a taboo – perhaps, more accurately, a blindspot – it would be difficult to claim it remained in place after Tony Blair’s speech as shadow home secretary after the death of Jamie Bulger. The rather similar Blue Labour critique of New Labour is that the thought got lost in power.

But there was also an important pro-equality driver and dimension to the left’s engagement with family issues across this period.

The core agenda of the Fabians during my time there was to bring equality back into mainstream political debate, arguing for a “life chances” framework to do this. I made the politics of equal life chances my central theme in a presentation on political themes of the next decade when being interviewed for the Fabian job back in 2003. The very first question, from Tony Wright MP in select committee grilling mode, was “so, does that have anything to say about the family then?”

Of course, the shocking life chances of children in care offer the starkest possible evidence that families matter. So, from this perspective, it makes very little sense to think of the left facing a choice between a socio-economic politics of structural inequality and a cultural concern with family.

So family was a peripheral issue, occasionally addressed, because groups on the left thought it was symbolically important to be seen to have something to say if asked. Rather, making children, family and early intervention a much more salient areas of policy focus was a central consequence of core egalitarian concerns with equal opportunity and social mobility.

I co-edited a 2004 collection – ‘Family Fortunes: the new politics of childhood’ - with Patrick Diamond (a Downing Street advisor to Blair and Brown) and Meg Munn, where we had this to say in its introduction, acknowledging some complexities, anxieties and uncertainties in how to frame a left response to these challenges, but appearing quite unaware that the taboo was in place:

Why the left needs a new politics of the family
Many families today experience huge strain. Relationships are breaking down at a rapid rate, and more children are growing up in disrupted families. There is a direct public policy interest here. Weakened families cost the state money both directly and indirectly and as such the state has a public interest in strengthening families, regardless of their structure. Families are the foundations of civic society, where we first learn moral values. Families generate social capital – the trust and relationship skills that enable individuals to cooperate.

The left finds it easy to discuss children but difficult to discuss families. Yet families have a greater impact on childhood development and life chances than any other factor. We must have the confidence to debate these issues openly and reshape the politics of the family. Ironically, it has been parties of the centre-left, not the centre-right, that have led the way in thinking about ways to stablise family life … While the left should respond sceptically to fantasies of a ‘golden age’ of the traditional family, we have shied away from acknowledging the importance of two parents for children’s life chances – despite the strength of the evidence. Supporting families to cope with the stresses of everyday lives is important in helping parents to put their children first. A new politics of the family should aim to strengthen families disrupted by divorce or breakdown, with children’s well-being at the heart of policy. Families matter and the state cannot simply compensate for their absence.

Public and media debate remains polarised around the question of what type of families we want. But it would be more productive to focus on how public policy can respond to the empirical evidence – how we best support the families we’ve got. The social revolution in the position of women is permanent. Only an extreme fringe minority in our society wish to turn back the clock.

The idea that children are better off with two loving parents than one has long seemed like common sense to me, other things equal (as they aren’t always, of course). I am minded to believe the social science evidence on that because of my own subjective experience too: that it can often be relentless and knackering enough to be one of two parents of very young children to be grateful that I am not trying to parent alone – though that instinct naturally also leads to admiration for many of those who are.

But what are the policy implications of that? That belief certainly doesn’t, therefore, lead me to want to disadvantage further the single parents who already often have this tougher and most crucial job – whether that is through bereavement, divorce, break-up or whatever - though I am certainly in favour of the most effective efforts possible to ensure absent fathers meeting their financial responsibilities to their children.

If one is interested in the distribution of life chances, advantage and disadvantage, there is a good case for seeing the presence (and distribution) of stable and loving parenting and secure relationships as probably the most important of all goods in the left’s thinking about society. We know that resources matter here, given how economic insecurity, low pay or long hours place stresses on relationships and the time which parents have for parenting, but we know too that this is not a question of money alone.

The appalling prospects in education and employment of children in care, is certainly important evidence behind continued efforts to make adoption more common, to assist the formation of stable families. There were important recommendations on this from Martin Narey and a Times campaign recently. Similarly, there is every reason to believe that a child being brought up by two committed gay parents would tend to have much better life chances than if remaining in the care system.

Personally, I am pro-marriage. That’s certainly the case if you rely on revealed preferences. I got married. But I am sceptical about whether financial incentives and small tax breaks significantly would affect marriage rates – the costs of both weddings and divorce proceedings would suggest otherwise. And I am, anyway, am not at all sure it would be a good idea to incentivise those few ‘marginal’ marriages which would be nudged into existence, though the evidence that people who want to marry are deterred from doing so by the financial pressures could well be a legitimate cause for concern.

It is possible to argue that almost everybody on the left seems to have some potential to be pro-marriage – though, curiously, the best evidence for this is the pride almost universally taken in the important civil rights advance of the happy availability of gay marriage (also endorsed by a strong majority on the right) since many do remain rather more ambivalent about marriage more generally. If the whole liberal-left can whole-heartedly celebrate civil partnerships, I can’t myself see identify any logical barrier to extending the principle to celebrating marriage more generally, even for those who aren’t gay, without fearing that doing so would stigmatise those who choose not to marry.


There are taboo subjects in British society, public and political debate. Examples include the advocacy of paedophilia, bestiality and incest, and holocaust denial. There is a very solid consensus for maintaining these taboos – so you probably shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for New Statesman covers taking on those subjects which really are taboo in British public debate.

Even if you double dare them.

More puzzling is the common claim that subjects which are frequently and loudly debated in public, political and media debate are off limits – something usually attributed to the pernicious effect of political correctness.

A good rule of thumb is to always avoid reinforcing the conspiracy frame, and instead insist on having reasoned public debates about every major social issue we face.

The great problem with conversations which start “why aren’t we allowed to talk about x” is that they too rarely seem to get beyond that first base. Of course, we must talk about the family, and immigration, and race, and other subjects said to be closed down by the

Let’s move the conversation forward by asking those shouting about not being allowed to talk about the subject to get onto the substance of what it is that they want to say about it.

Let’s talk about where we are on the family in our society, and what we would aspire to. And let’s talk about what we might reasonably expect, perhaps sometimes from government, perhaps sometimes from employers, sometimes from ourselves too – that might help, or at least not get in the way.

Let’s officially call the taboo off – even if that involves slaying a largely mythical dragon. What is needed from left, right and centre is not just a willingness to talk, but the ideas about what can be done, which prove effective and command public legitimacy and consent here in the real world for the type of society that we have become.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Good old Tony Blair bit, but sadly do you not know he's gone.

Tony and his gang loved to talk about the family as hard working tax payers god forgive if you were not hard working then you were not part of the New Labour regime.

Hard working tax paying families.