The recent New Statesman coverage on the family - which I blogged about on Next Left - hinted towards, but hyperbolically exaggerated, an interesting contrast between right and left in how they tackle the politics of the family.
The right has been very clear about what it wants to say about the family, but much shorter on what goes with the rhetoric. The centre-left has often been able to generate a “policy rich” agenda, but has been less successful in articulating the principles.
Margaret Thatcher was a vigorous advocate not just of “family values” but of a traditionalist Victorian-inspired reading of them. If we have had a slow decline of these values over decades, as the Prime Minister reiterated today, then a large part of that must have taken place while a staunchly traditionalist reading of family values were a constant staple of ministerial speeches.
The problem for the Thatcher family values agenda was that, across a decade, the Downing Street Policy Unit did not find many ways to put that rhetoric into practice. Rates of divorce and of births outside of marriage continued to rise across the 1980s and afterwards. Partly the creative destruction of markets trumped the instinct to social stability, but it was also because nobody in mainstream politics succeeded in identifying what could legitimately have been done to quickly or sharply reverse those trends, at least without significantly transgressing on the values of an open society.
That the right is usually more ambivalent than the left about intruding on market freedoms in the cause of family values, as proposals over parental leave have tended to demonstrate, is one reason why social democrats have often had more policy content on families and children as part of a concern for social inclusion and integration – introducing new institutions such as SureStart for the under 5s, to increased financial support for families in work, and progress on maternity and paternity rights and flexible working - but were weaker on a public articulation on the vision of family which brought this together.
Both right and left have changed their approach to family. The right has toned down the rhetoric significantly since the days of Peter Lilley singing ditties about single mothers at the Tory party conference. It has got practical, particularly drawing on the work of the Centre for Social Justice.
The left has been talking about how to develop its hands-on focus on children and families in its analysis of social exclusion into a more coherent public narrative, which also reflects on the evidence of lessons of what has worked and what didn’t over the last decade. So a caricatured portrait of a debate between hyperindividualist 68ers and traditionalist reactionaries misses out the real world in which most of us live.
So, when the Fabians brought Iain Duncan Smith and Polly Toynbee together at the Labour conference to discuss poverty and life chances, they still had some differences of course, but both proved rather much more struck by the extent of common ground too, especially on the need for greater investment in early intervention, where IDS has alighted on a central preoccupation of many Labour thinkers too.
The potential convergence is illustrated by Tim Montgomerie’s consensual pitch from the right in the Guardian, which included a surprise offer to become a conciliatory pioneer on the right for a mansion tax, as well as for early intervention, and asking in return:
Can Labour politicians get to the point where they agree that single parenthood is sometimes wonderful, often unavoidable but rarely ideal?
Yes, that seems to me to be something that most people on the left could endorse pretty straightforwardly, not least because the nuanced expression and avoidance of scapegoating marks a significant shift in the discourse and rhetoric of the right too, decisively rejecting the scapegoating and stigmatising which will naturally generate a defensive response.
The ambivalence in the left’s approach to the family is not presentational – the fear of channelling the Daily Mail – but also substantive - about the complexity of strengthening the family in the society we live in, not an idealised version of what once was.
The real difficulty here that the family is rightly the most private and so jealously guarded of social institutions and yet also, at the same time, acknowledged by both right and left to provide the most important foundations for our civic life too. That tension presents significant challenges, generating fears of excessive intervention and the spectre of the ‘nanny state’ alongside recognition of the shortcomings of a laissez-faire approach, whether pursued from social individualism on the left or market individualism on the right, which heads into there is no such thing as society territory.
Dystopian claims of a broken society lack both a credible evidence base and, usually, any coherent or possible agenda for change, while, at the same time, significant sections of our society are fractured and damaged, so risk further entrenching a segregated minority, in which both disadvantage and dysfunction are too easily transmitted from generation to generation.
Both left and right have liberal and traditionalist wings which are still motivated primarily by the urgency of the need to contest or protect the legacy of the social liberalisation of the 1960s.
But the potential for a good measure of common ground can be overlooked if we do not recognise the engaged debate about public policy has mostly moved beyond that.
There is a broad sense that the bulk of those changes are irreversible. Britain is in this respect a more European society, with our public debate much less dominated by the sharp “culture wars” polarisation which continue to frame much US debate about “values issues”.