UK childcare is now the most expensive in the world, with the cost rising four times faster than the average wage. Despite this, childcare professionals – who, overwhelmingly, are working class women – are some of the lowest paid workers in society. As it stands, childcare in the UK is expensive, inflexible and incapable of fitting around the lives of parents – be it those who work inside or outside the home.
Shadow Early Years minister Tracy Brabin has been taking aim at the Conservatives on this issue. She has exposed their promise to provide 30 hours of free childcare for three to five year old children of working parents as woefully underfunded. Meanwhile, it speaks volumes that many providers are now refusing to accept the money provided. Brabin’s campaign not only exposes the Conservative lies told to working parents, but offers Labour an opportunity to reimagine the purposes of childcare, proposing an alternative to the current system.
For years, childcare workers have been complaining about underfunding in their sector. As a result of their complaints falling on deaf ears, smaller childcare centres and school-led nurseries have reduced their sizes or even been forced to close. Now, as government funded childcare centres flounder, private nursery super chains are primed to take their place.
Labour’s current manifesto pledge offers 30 hours a week of free universal childcare for children from two years old up. This is a huge step forward in childcare policy and has the potential to transform the lives of many parents. That being said, there is scope for Labour to be even bolder in its approach to the care of our children.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, are increasingly outsourcing private companies to deliver subsidised childcare. In the trial of their proposed childcare scheme, private firms made up 57% of the providers, some of which are listed on the stock market.
By allowing private companies to dictate the terms of childcare, as with so many other essential services today, we are ceding democratic freedom and popular control over the care of our children to market mechanisms. The pressure of market competition serves not to improve standards or further choice but to lower standards, push up costs and intensify the exploitation of childcare workers.
The Labour party has already shown its desire to move away from marketisation of essential public services, with its proposal to nationalise the railways. Rather than throwing more money at big firms, Labour could take this opportunity to question who and what childcare is for, understanding its purposes as not merely confined to the narrow horizons of capitalism.
The main purpose of childcare should not be to allow private companies to profit off the care of our children, claiming ever more state subsidies in order to make parents available for work. Silvia Federici puts it best, “we might have daycare centres, not just to be liberated for more work, but to be able to take a walk, talk to our friends, or go to a women’s meeting”.
In many respects, the Sure Start centres established by the last Labour government attempted to tackle some of these issues. A newly elected Labour government, which is committed to reversing the Sure Start cuts, could take the current model even further by establishing community care centres that take an intergenerational approach, acknowledging that it really does take a village to raise a child and providing the physical space and resources to make that possible.
At Mums For Corbyn, our vision for childcare is a system that enables parents to take democratic control of reproductive services, defining the purposes of that care and working to meet them in collaboration with childcare workers. These parents are giving us a taste of what this could look like.
This vision for a more collective approach to childcare has the potential to be developed within the model of community care centres, where the concept of care would be centred around the needs of those who use it. It could include the making of collective meals, communal laundry machines, support for new mums and breast feeding classes. The possibilities are far from limited and there is clearly scope for a cooperative/state-run model.
Historically, child care professionals have received low pay and a lack of professional recognition despite the vital service they provide. Our vision could not be achieved without the workers in this sector having the ability to self organise and collectively bargain on important issues like pay. The knowledge and experience of childcare professionals should be valued and listened to, informing the way that childcare services are run.
Labour’s transformative manifesto has shown that ordinary people are hungry for systemic change. It rightly tackled many of the injustices that lead to inequality, poverty and poor health.
We want that same radical approach to be applied to childcare. We know how hard it is raising children in an increasingly atomised society and believe that adopting a more collective approach to their care will resonate with other parents. We believe that care should be at the centre of our politics and our lives. We therefore must strive to build a world where reproductive labour is not denigrated but celebrated as the work that makes life possible.