At this festive family time, and with the Tories predictably reverting to norm on so many issues as the election approaches, including resurrecting tax breaks "in symbolic recognition of the institution of marriage" (see here for an analysis from Left Foot Forward) I've been reflecting on the family structures of some of the mothers I've been spending time with over the Christmas break. (Mothers, not fathers, because I think this is - sadly and predictably - still very much still a debate about the role of women in society).
A) late 30s, been with partner since university days, three children, not married, no intention of doing so
B) married for 25 years to boy-next-door, two boys
C) 40, two kids from long-term relationship (10 years +), one child from current relationship (5 years +), no desire to get married
D) three children by three fathers, (including one short marriage), not currently in a relationship
E) lived with partner for 10+ years before getting married, now have 8 year old
F) married in her twenties, separated from husband for several years in thirties, now reunited and have a 2 year old
G) two children in late teens/ early twenties, never married, father of children has always played active role in their upbringing but doesn't live with them
H) married in twenties, three children, divorced late 30s, now single parent
That's just a sample. And the point I'm making is this... You, reading this, cannot tell from the bare facts above who is a good mother, whose kids are happy and healthy, who is in a loving and supportive relationship, who has reluctantly stayed together for the sake of the kids... Can you? You don't know who's working, who's well-off, who's living on the bread line.
So why are the Conservatives so obsessed with structures, rather than outcomes?
Here's another Left Foot Forward piece on how Osborne's pledge to support married couples through the tax system ignores social trends, with the proportion of children being brought up in a single parent household having steadily increased... (As ever I say this bearing in my mind the words of a 15 year old I know, who rebuked me for describing him as coming from a single parent family, as he's always spent half the week living with his Dad. He's probably had far more active hands-on parenting from his father than many kids who have grown up in a two-parent household. Or kids who are sent off to boarding school at the age of seven, come to that.)
I seem to have lost the ability to paste chunks of text into Blogger, but have a look at the reasons given in the first LFF piece from the Conservatives' Social Justice Policy Group as to why their suggestion of a £20 a week Transferable Personal Allowance would in a modest way support stable relationships - for which, read marriage.
Reading between the lines, it's obvious that the Social Justice bods are simply dreaming of a traditional marriage where the man goes out to work, and the woman stays at home, looks after the kids, does a bit of voluntary work, pops in to see her elderly relatives, has the dinner on the table when the man gets home. No doubt she also bakes cakes, wears a pinny and waltzes round the kitchen singing songs about the virtues of floor cleaning fluids. Ignore the red herring thrown to the liberals, 'mother or father'... that is not what they're on about.
Of course we all want children to grow up in happy, stable families. But you can do this through boosting family incomes (the minimum wage, tax credits); supporting parents who work (extended schools, free nursery places, child care vouchers); early intervention programmes (Sure Start, the Family Intervention Project). If I was to list the priorities for families with young children in my constituency it would be those things, not worrying about whether they're married or not.
I would say more, but off out to a family Boxing day party soon, with maybe thirty, thirty-five of us there. The one thing I can count on is that all the mothers will gratefully dump their kids on Auntie Kerry for the evening and I'll be the one organising Pass the Hat!