That’s why I’ve nailed my colours to the mast of marriage. Marriage may not be a panacea. There will always be ghastly marriages. There will always be divorce. That’s part of human nature too. But marriage represents an attitude and a plan and a timeframe that establishes clarity and removes ambiguity. Doing it in front of friends and family affirms that getting married is a good decision and then holds the married couple to account for that decision. The result is that those who marry tend to stay together. Their families benefit in all sorts of ways. This is a consistent finding among research studies. At least if you marry and then blow it – as we so nearly did – you’ve had a go. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that parents might establish their own plan for the future before they have children.
Now I don’t think for one moment that government is to blame for family breakdown. After all, it’s risen consistently under all governments, year in year out, from half a million lone parent families back in the 1960s to two million today. Throughout this time, all of our political parties have rightly concluded that the state will provide when the family doesn’t. The bill to the taxpayer for this support now runs to £47 billion per year, regardless of the human heartache involved, and it keeps on rising. So they’re good at treating the problem.
I live in hope that one day our political parties will one day try to prevent the problem as well, embracing what is obvious to the vast majority of the population. Their policies will encourage marriage because it provides the surest foundation for a family life and reduces the likelihood of state intervention. They will set policies that encourage marriage and family stability and avoid policies that inhibit it – such as the ludicrous ‘couple penalty‘ that pays couples with one child up to £7,295 extra to live apart rather than together.
Alas far too many politicians still can’t quite bring themselves to back marriage with any real confidence – even if they themselves are married. They are swayed by sceptics who claim marriage and its associated benefits is all about the kind of people who marry. This is undoubtedly true in part. But only part. Where this scepticism is misplaced is in ruling out the possibility that marriage – and the decision it represents about the future made in private and affirmed in public – forms the safe foundation upon which subsequent family life operates. Just as I can’t prove cause and effect, sceptics can’t disprove it. It’s an odd sort of policy that looks at a body of evidence pointing only in one direction and then still says I’m not so sure.
So what about the manifestos of all the main political parties, now that we have seen them?
In terms of their support for families, the main focus seems to be on getting parents into work and children into childcare.
- The Labour manifesto talks about early intervention (p33), boosting childcare, paternity leave and Surestart. Surestart is an interesting one. The government’s own evaluations have shown that children’s outcomes have not been improved one iota by the vast national resources pumped into Surestart, even if mums like it. Having run Let’s Stick Together programmes in dozens of Surestart centres myself, I am not at all surprised. Part of the problem is that most programmes weren’t evaluated (Let’s Stick Together was). The other part is that relatively few parents take advantage. I have long proposed that the highly successful NHS ante-natal programmes be relocated into Surestart. That would dramatically increase the proportion of parents returning post-natally. A deluge of parents would also force Surestart centres to run short preventive post-natal programmes rather than longer term mums and babies/toddlers groups (as welcome as these are to parents). If this is what Labour mean by encouraging ‘local services to co-locate’ (p44), there’s hope in this.
- As well as competing on childcare, the Conservative manifesto explicitly links family breakdown as a pathway to poverty (p28) and also talks of backing marriage (p27). Alas it fails to link the two in any meaningful way. An extra £212 in tax allowance is not going to persuade anybody to marry. But imagine if you could persuade people to marry before they have children and imagine that these couples then achieved similar levels of stability. It wouldn’t happen quite like that but it might close the gap. The potential prize is huge. Family breakdown could be reduced by more than a quarter over time, equivalent to 70,000 children for every age group (based on our latest analysis of data from Understanding Society). I’ve always suspected that Conservative ministers like the idea of marriage but don’t really understand why being married might make a difference. But there’s hope in this too, that politicians will find out what the research says and thereby gain the confidence to back their own judgment.
- I’ve skimmed the LibDem, UKIP and Green manifestos for evidence of some policy that will boost family stability. All three parties push childcare as their key family policy and not a lot else. The LibDems talk vaguely of ‘encouraging integration’ of local services (p57) and mention ‘marriage’ seven times – but only in the context of same sex marriage or forced marriage. UKIP want to increase the transferable marriage allowance to £300 per year – still largely meaningless but notionally the most pro-marriage policy of all the parties – and otherwise mention ‘marriage’ four times, three of which regarding immigration and ‘sham’ marriages, and one regarding war widow pensions. And the Greens want to return to the old ineffective Surestart (p36) and have nothing to say at all on either marriage or family breakdown.
So for the foreseeable future at least, the negative tide of family breakdown is not going to be turned by our politicians. Whether the parties keep any of these promises anyway is anyone’s guess. Most will fall by the wayside if the election produces no clear winner.
But what I can do, and what any of us can do, is stick to the promise I made when I got married. That, at least, is one promise I can keep.