Thinking the unthinkable

Frank Field’s feckless fathers, by Melissa Benn
Posted in: PF blog

11:09 am, 30 June 2010 | Melissa Benn

For as long as I can remember, Frank Field has been thinking the unthinkable. Now part of David Cameron’s cost-cutting team, some old ideas are being re-cycled in a new supposedly culturally and politically sensitive form. His proposals, however, will face some very familiar problems.

Single mothers have long been in the firing line. Remember Peter Lilley and his 1992 conference speech about having a ‘little list…of benefit offenders I’ll soon be rooting out’? Thatcherite Britain was defined by its class-based distaste for ‘babies on benefit’.

This time, however, the argument is more subtle. Field clearly thinks it is a woman’s job to raise children and the man’s to provide for her. He blames a generation of ‘upwardly mobile very successful women’ for trying to drive young mothers into work.

But Field doesn’t quite grasp the fundamental shift in women’s lives. Yes, many mothers prefer to spend the early years closer to home; some due to lack of educational and work opportunities. But many don’t, including the wives of most of our senior politicians. You can’t design a 21st century benefit system around a 1950s model of motherhood.

Either way, you certainly won’t help poor mothers who want to bring up their own children with proposed reductions in housing benefit or the slicing away of the baby tax credit, the toddler tax credit and the Pregnancy Grant.

As the unexpected star of the recent budget debate, Yvette Cooper, presumably one of the upwardly mobile women Field is referring to, taunted her opposite number Iain Duncan Smith, ‘At least Margaret Thatcher had the grace to wait till the children (were) weaned before she snatched their support‘.

But fathers too are being scrutinised in a new way. Thatcher set up the once ill-starred Child Support Agency to chase feckless fathers for payment. The new plan is far harsher: cut the benefits of those dads who won’t get back into work.

Once again, the coalition will run into trouble. A fresh and surely expensive (not to mention ignominious) layer of government will be needed to prove DNA and the outcome of one-night stands.

The other huge but as yet unspoken part of the jigsaw is unemployment; not just the chronic worklessness in areas decimated by structural and political changes of the Thatcherite 1980s but the hundreds of thousands of job losses coming our way.

What good is it saying to a young man: work for your babies or live in bottom line poverty, if there really is no work on offer?

Five ways Labour might change

Read my latest Comment is Free post on the Guardian website about ways Labour might change following its electon defeat.

The idea for the piece first came to me after I went to a local Labour Party meeting, following the election; like many people, the election itself and Labour’s relatively narrow defeat reminded me of where my political values and ultimate loyalty lay ( not that there had ever been any real doubt, as those who know me well often complain!)

I had not been to a local Labour Party meeting for decades, and although I was impressed, as ever, by the stoic commitment of activists and councillors and the fact that the party was holding the meeting on the local estate, I soon felt defeated by the proceduralism and nit picky aspects of the meeting. I wandered home, thinking about the many ways that the local Labour party might connect up with other groups and campaigns, and draw on the enthusiasm and willingness of many who have limited time. Most people just can’t or won’t make the space for endless meetings when they have work/kids etc. Although I have always been politically involved, one way or another, I know I am one of them.

I talked to a few people I know who are far more involved in local party campaigning than I am and it became clear that these ideas are taking off post election around the country; also that many local parties are already implementing similar proposals. They know it’s a case of change or die. But it was a close friend with a sharp political brain, and limited patience, who read my last draft and rang me to say, ‘you can’t really talk about local democracy without mentioning the way the leadership have marginalised and ignored views they don’t like, despite the National Policy Forum’, a body often derided as toothless.

I knew my friend was right. If I didn’t mention this more brutal political reality, the ideas in my piece risked appearing anoydyne. Put another way, activism is pointless if it a) doesn’t put pressure on those with power and b) there are mechanisms to make those in power take note aka political accountability.

So that’s a bit of the background, for those who are interested………..