You can tell the Tory Party is in trouble. Dreadful economic numbers, NHS reforms in tatters, public sector workers declaring that enough is enough. So, once again, David Cameron uses Father’s Day, that annual festival for the greetings card industry, to make pronouncements on family issues in a piece in the Sunday Telegraph today.
At one level you have to hand it to the Tories. In the old days, kicking a few single mothers would have been enough. Now it’s more sophisticated – now it’s fathers who run away from their responsibilities who are in the firing line and there’s even a reference in Cameron’s piece to heroic single mothers. Progress of a sort, I guess, but Cameron’s argument still shows overwhelmingly that he doesn’t get it on the family, and what his chosen economic ideology does to them.
Cameron’s article is couched almost entirely in terms of the economic role of fathers, and underlying it is a potent but nonsensical myth – that families can and should be supported by a single male income. Pernicious, because it involves an economic determinism of gender roles that has no intellectual support, but also mendacious because it ignores how the balance of economic power has shifted against those on average incomes in the neoliberal decades – indeed, how it has shifted from wage-earners to the holders of capital.
My father was a skilled worker earning quite a bit more than the average wage. Growing up in the 1970s that allowed us to live comfortably, as homeowners in a pleasant suburban semi. In other words, on one income we had a lifestyle that increasingly now takes two full-time incomes to maintain. Moreover, we had the expectation of things like a free university education – I was the first member of my family to go to university as a result. I guess we were pretty normal. We certainly – apart from the mortgage – never used credit – to this day my father refuses to have a credit card. It’s quite hard to think that how recent that all is, and how different it is from the economic struggle families face now, balancing their working lives and sinking scarce resources into childcare. I don’t want the old split of men earning, women at home; I want both parents to be able to make their own choices about how they raise children, without both being forced into full-time employment.
Much of the change is due to housing costs. The idea that you could buy a family home for a little more than twice the national average wage is laughable now – if Cameron is sincere in looking for factors that have had a serious impact upon family life he might want to consider the house price inflation of the past decades, in which we have become brainwashed into thinking that rising house prices are a symptom of prosperity. Home ownership was once the bedrock of Tory social ideology, reaching its apogee in what we now know was the disastrous policy of selling off social housing – now, for a whole generation, it is an impossibility, while renting has none of the security that legislation provides to tenants in mainland Europe. And lifestyles are increasingly funded by the rolling over of credit. And this is increasingly a cause of economic instability – as David Harvey has convincingly argued, every economic crisis since the 1970s has originated in a credit bubble fuelled by speculative property-price inflation. Speculation, house price inflation, economic instability and credit-fuelled consumption have meant that economic life has become more and more difficult for people – families – who are earning average or above-average incomes, while wages continue to decline as a proportion of total income.
So Cameron’s vision of father going to work to provide economic security is no more than a piece of nostalgia – the sort of nostalgia that survives in the most economically privileged Cabinet for decades but has no relation to daily life as lived by the vast majority of citizens. Yes, marital breakdown is an issue and of course there are men who run away from their responsibilities, economic and otherwise – but let’s stop making easy judgements about individuals when the system is stacked so firmly against them. And New Labour, locked in its free-market mindset, is guilty of exactly the same simplifications.
Most of all, this is about allocating blame for poverty to the poor themselves. Children and single mothers do not, in Cameron’s view, live in poverty because the economic system has failed them and because the ideology of market economics is stacked so overwhelmingly against them, but because of the actions of feckless individuals. We are back to the ideological distinction, so important to neoliberalism and the intellectual core of the Big Society, the contrast between the deserving and the undeserving poor. It was a lie that Beveridge and his successors nailed more than half a century ago, but ideology, the illusion of prosperity, the growth of evangelical religion and the cheap moralism of the media have allowed its return. It’s as toxic as it ever was and it’s the duty of anyone who believes themselves to be on the left – are you listening Ed Miliband – to fight it with every weapon they have.