Are some kinds of families better than others?
The Conservatives seem to think so. Last week, the Prime Minister revealed his plans to give certain married couples a tax break worth £200 a year, which will particularly favour stay-at-home mothers.
Here's Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith talking it up at the Conservative Party conference: "The greatest thing we can do to help stabilise families and support commitment and nature is to back the most important man-made institution of marriage through a transferable tax allowance," he said. "This is a brilliant move and gives fairness to hard-working families."
Now, I think Iain Duncan Smith is a man who genuinely cares about his fellow men and women, even if I do not share his increasingly strident ideology on welfare. But tax breaks for married couples fair? What is he on about? They are quite clearly anything but. This is a policy that gives certain people a financial advantage based on a lifestyle choice, and discriminates against anyone - unmarried couples, single people and single parent families among them - who has made a different choice.
This would be objectionable enough in itself - and indeed both Labour and the Liberal Democrats oppose the plan - but it feeds into something more worrying, and distasteful, namely a tendency by politicians, particularly on the right, to define certain groups as deserving and others, by implication, as undeserving. Those who do not work, as we have seen, are firmly in the latter group, but so, increasingly, are those who do not conform to the Government's ideal of the family.
David Cameron has long supported tax breaks for the married as a sop to party traditionalists. In announcing the policy, which also extends to civil partnerships, he claimed there was "something special about marriage" and praised married people for their "commitment and responsibility".
Inconveniently for the Tories, however, marriage is not as special as Mr Cameron suggests. Certain long-standing assumptions about the superiority of marriage over cohabiting as a basis for bringing up children are not borne out by the research. In 2010, the Institute of Fiscal Studies set out to examine this very question. After studying data on 10,000 youngsters, it found that young children's development was not affected by whether their parents were cohabiting or married. While there were differences in development between children born in and out of wedlock, these were to do with the greater wealth, status and education of people who typically chose to marry, not with marriage itself.
Marriage does appear to make family break-up less likely, but that does not justify giving the married a financial advantage. If children's welfare is the priority, how can it be right to benefit some children but not others, based arbitrarily on whether their parents are married or not?
No-one in politics would be stupid enough nowadays publicly to lecture single parents or the unmarried, after it backfired so spectacularly on John Major, but the championing of marriage is a judgment on them all the same. If it is unacceptable for ministers to promote one group of families over another, it is equally inappropriate for families in general to be forever the focus of policy rather than couples or single people - but they are.
"Hard-working families" is currently the most overused phrase in politics. The Conservative Party slogan for its recent conference was "for hard-working people", but "hard-working families" were exalted like holy martyrs all week. Iain Duncan Smith, his fellow minister Eric Pickles and Tory party chairman Grant Shapps all claimed to be championing this group. Labour do it too. Hard-working families were beyond reproach in Tony Blair's eyes, or at least his rhetoric. Gordon Brown added the prefix "decent" to ram home the point that these people were the epitome of British virtue. Ed Miliband invokes them just as much as David Cameron.
Doesn't it make you groan? "What about working families who do as little as they can get away with?" joked a friend on Facebook. "Where's the policy for them?" It's not just that the phrase is ingratiating and patronising. It's not just that it is an oblique judgment about who is and who is not deserving ("hard-working" blatantly chimes with the current Government-driven narrative about strivers and skivers, which in turn plays to the prejudice that everyone who claims benefits is at best a burden and at worst a cheat).
It is also that it excludes by definition quite vast numbers of people. The 2011 census showed that Scotland today, for the first time, has more single-person households than any other type - 35%, compared to 14% in 1961. Those households include young people living on their own who may go on to marry, but also single people of all ages and couples who are committed to one another but live separately, as well as divorced people and the widowed. When will any politician start proclaiming the interests of this dynamic and growing group?
"Family" can - and should - have several definitions. Many couples, straight or gay, married or unmarried, consider themselves a family, and so do some single people with pets, and even some groups of friends, but none of those are the most commonly understood definition. According to the Oxford Dictionary, family means "a set of relations, esp. parents and children". Politicians use the phrase hard-working families knowing that it will be taken to mean working people supporting children.
If we were in any doubt about the Conservatives' interpretation, an online advert put out in 60 marginal constituencies last winter clarifies the point. "Who do you think this Government should be giving more support to?" it asks. "Hard-working families..." (picture of a man and a woman with their two children) "... Or people who won't work?" (picture of a young man sitting on a sofa). Not much room for doubt there.
Are you part of a hard-working family? I'm not, not in the way the Tories mean. I am married (tick) and I work (tick) but my husband and I have no children. Not beyond redemption, then, but I'll have to give up my ambitions of appearing on a Tory campaign poster any time soon.
What about those millions of child-free single people? Think of the civil servant or the teacher or the nurse. You never hear about hard-working single people, even though, without the competing demands of family, long hours are the norm for many. What's more, with only one wage coming in, it is harder for single people to cover bills and pay rent or mortgages. When was the last time you heard a politician suggest assistance for them? What about the decent upstanding widowed pensioner? What about the unemployed person who worked for years before illness or injury forced them onto benefits? When do we ever hear about any of them?
Private polling evidence must show that tax breaks for married couples and praise for hard-working families resonate with that precious section of Middle Britain that can be relied upon to vote. There are nearly 8m people living alone across the UK, however, and that total is expected to rise by two million in the next decade. Politicians cannot continue to ignore them.
The Conservatives' Right may hanker for the old days, but society has moved on and this state love-in with the traditional family is simply unfair.
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