The Independent

Mr Hague can exploit all this dithering on the family

'So far, Tories have not been able to sell themselves as the party of the family without sounding moralistic and shrill'

By Anne McElvoy
The Independent
17 January 2001

The Government has an elephant in its living room, a vast, squatting inconvenience of a creature which they can neither dismiss nor openly acknowledge. Tony Blair's unwanted pet goes by the name of family policy. For some time, he and his colleagues have tiptoed around it, talking of other things. With the utmost inconvenience, the slumbering beast has awoken to disrupt the harmony of the Cabinet and obscure the clear view of the election.

Arguments about how far governments should support traditional family structures go to the heart of New Labour's cultural schisms. The family is the most divisive issue to face its senior ranks. For the first time, many of them have felt determined to face down Mr Blair's earlier signals that he would provide a White Paper before the election, giving the Prime Minister's blessing to the married family. He pledged as much at the 1997 conference: "Every area of government policy will be scrutinised to see how it affects family life... every avenue explored to see how we strengthen our families."

Doubtless this reflected Mr Blair's own instinctive attachment to stable family life. But it was also part of a political scheme to co-opt influential social conservatives in the media, church leaders and lobby groups, stealing yet another piece of territory from under the feet of the floundering Conservative Party.

But this is not only politics: it is also deeply personal. The Government consists overwhelmingly of individuals of socially liberal views. By generation, belief and personal experience, they are disinclined to be judgmental about marriage, divorce or co-habitation, or to interpret politics as a crusade to restore personal morality. This conviction was brought home to me by the colleague of the pro-marriage Home Office minister Paul Boateng, who commented that Mr Boateng's extramural role as a Methodist preacher was "all very well – but he should keep his beliefs out of his politics". Now there is an intriguing concept.

Beliefs are at the core of this argument. Those sceptical of the usefulness of endorsing marriage are driven by their own conviction that they are unwilling to visit on others norms that they do not accept in their own lives. That is why the clash runs so deep.

Even before the 1997 election, this was a touchy area. When Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle in their prototype of New Labour thinking, The Blair Revolution, set out the idea of rewarding couples progressively for staying married, Mr Mandelson wanted to describe the state of marriage as "ideal" for the raising of children. David Miliband, Mr Blair's chief policy advisor, objected that this would annoy too many voters who cohabit or are divorced and the word was dropped.

The recent internal dramas on the subject are, essentially, a repeat of this conflict. After the election, a White Paper on the family was promised and a consultative committee assembled; the notion of a marriage endorsement – led by Mr Boateng – reared its head again. Internal resistance united Baroness Jay, Tessa Jowell and Margaret Hodge. While this faction has not been otherwise noticeably successful in winning battles against the boys' club around Mr Blair, things were different on this occasion. They had the support of the more "conservative" figures of Jack Straw, other cabinet moderates, and key advisors, all of whom preferred to let sleeping moralisms lie.

The decisive argument with Mr Blair was the warning from Tory history: the disastrous Back To Basics campaign. Any endorsement of the nuptial state by a government whose members have kept divorce lawyers in the style to which they have become accustomed would, the critics said, be paraded as rank hypocrisy. Mr Blair glimpsed the ghost of Major past and turned pale.

So, barring a last minute flip-flop, New Labour go into the election with a family-neutral policy. This leaves an enormous opportunity for the Conservatives. Mr Hague has long promised to reverse the drift of the latter Tory years which eroded the value of the married couples tax allowance. It will also allow him to present himself as the representative of the conventional, common sense, decent, hardworking etc etc family against the depredations of trendy Islington-dwelling types.

But this demands some careful balancing and a more subtle rhetorical sense than Mr Hague has lately exhibited. For a start, he must make his case better than Mr Major by emphasising that the individual failures of politicians' marriages should not disqualify them from talking about marriage as a useful social institution.

Outside Scandinavia, most European countries do follow this route, albeit with mixed results. Those who resist changes to the tax system on the grounds that it will not affect behaviour are wrong – you can. What you can't do is use such a blunt instrument to reverse broader and more powerful cultural trends. If people want to separate, they will. The tax system merely influences how they make their arrangements. The decisive comparison is with Germany, where a mere 18 per cent of births are outside wedlock, compared with Britain's 37 per cent. The figure is heavily influenced by the decision taken by Chancellor Kohl's government 20 years ago to give strong preference to marriage in the tax system.

But this did not necessarily have the morally bracing effect intended. It resulted in early marriages – many Germans will volunteer that they got hitched essentially "for tax reasons" – often followed by early divorce, or the maintenance of paper marriages long after a split. Mr Hague should note that the tidiest-sounding solutions produce distortions and oddities of their own.

The Shadow Cabinet remains split on how to exploit Labour's family gap. Some argue for an across-the-board universal reward, in order to send the message that marriage is a good thing. But the more focused argument – fronted by the shadow Social Security spokesman David Willetts – is to target the single-earner, married family where one partner (usually the woman) stays at home to bring up children, by allowing them to claim their partner's tax allowances.

My hunch is that this latter option will prove more attractive to Mr Hague than some more sweeping symbolic gesture. It would allow the Conservatives to exploit the dissatisfactions felt at the lower income end of of middle-England earning scale. It could also detach some support from the many women who feel that the task of child-rearing is insufficiently rewarded by New Labour compared to the emphasis on paid work. On past experience, the Tories have not been able to sell themselves as the party of the family without ending up sounding prejudiced, small-minded, moralistic and shrill: often all at the same time. But Labour's dithering on the family has given Hague a rare chance to make the running on what may well be a key election issue. Let's see if he can run.

a.mcelvoy@independent.co.uk