‘Family Values’ Without Class is a Dead End for Labour

by Aaron Bastani

23 September 2020

Keir Starmer and his wife clapping
PA via Reuters

The family is often seen as the Conservatives’ rightful political home. But with child poverty skyrocketing and families forced into increasingly abysmal living conditions, it’s right that Starmer attempted to reclaim it in his conference speech yesterday. Yet if the Labour leader really prizes “family values”, he must move beyond platitudes to the politics of class.

Last weekend saw the start of LabourConnect, an “online expo” intended as a substitute for the party’s annual conference. The move online was necessary, of course, but somewhat strange given the party leadership’s insistence that schools should reopen in September, “no ifs, no buts”.

The technology was more than occasionally volatile. MPs who less than a year ago lambasted the party’s policy of free high-speed broadband now found themselves so heavily pixelated as to more closely resemble Mario Kart characters than politicians outlining the finer details of public policy.

But while cameras and connections were unpredictable, yesterday’s leader’s speech – the event’s crowning glory – was quite the opposite. The hygienic torpor of Starmer’s surroundings – no crowd, no applause, no dissent – was mirrored by his sterile prose. Equally unsurprisingly were the many lines that infuriated the left and infatuated “Corbyn-sceptics” in equal measure. 

Conspicuously absent, however, was any remorse from Starmer regarding his own role in December’s dramatic defeat. “When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to,” he intoned. “You don’t look at the electorate and ask them: what were you thinking? You look at yourself and ask: what were we doing?” While that is somewhat true – although its hard to believe Starmer honestly thinks Johnson deserves to be prime minister – it is strange that the Labour leader appears to think this mantra does not apply to him.

After all, he personally engineered Labour’s shift on Brexit from the conference floor two years ago, in direct defiance of his predecessor. Twelve months ago, Starmer proclaimed Labour “the party of Remain”, yet now the Holborn & St Pancras MP – fully aware of the role Brexit played in turning a consistent polling lead into an electoral calamity – breezily concluded in his virtual conference speech that “the debate between Leave and Remain is over”.

But more interesting than Starmer’s volte-face on Brexit – virtually all politicians partake in such escapology – was the weight placed on so-called family values: “Family values mean the world to me,” he said. “I was lucky enough to grow up in a loving family, and I have the great joy now of a family of my own. The mission of the Labour party I lead is to extend that same opportunity to everyone.”

What do those words mean? How does Labour propose to make a “loving family” available to all? And why can’t the Tories?

Just as it has been said that green politics without class is nothing more than gardening, so too are “family values” without class essentially meaningless. If you are moderately affluent, you may be able to own a home, even to care for your elders or nurture your children, if you’re lucky. But what if you aren’t? 

Any politician who claims to care about family values needs to explain what they plan to do about the child poverty blighting Britain. More than 35% of children in places such as Blackburn, Luton and Manchester are raised in poverty – 50% in Newham and Tower Hamlets. The spread of this scourge over the last decade correlates near-perfectly with in-work poverty, a phenomenon generally unheard of a generation ago. Today, households in poverty are likelier to be working than not, contradicting the right-wing axiom that the best solution to poverty is work. This is certainly not true now, if it ever was.

Yet while the word “security” featured seven times in Starmer’s speech, “poverty” did not appear once. Some MPs were embarrassing enough to compare Starmer’s oratory to Attlee’s – but it’s hard to imagine Labour’s greatest prime minister making such an omission.

Starmer’s appeals to family values, if they are to be meaningful, must explain how it is possible that two or three children, often more, must live with their parents in cramped accommodation while property developers convert family homes into bedsits and dosshouses. Furthermore, he must account for how these developers profit from the erosion of our social fabric not only with the blessing of councils, but with the cheap credit of banks. The same politicians who bleat relentlessly about “community” speak openly about bailing out landlords, whom they consult, rather than tenants, on their evictions policy. Is it “fair” or “decent” – two watchwords from Starmer’s speech – that young families can afford neither to buy a home, nor to rent a large enough space in which to raise their children? Given the party’s commitment in its last manifesto to building half a million homes, while enabling the private sector to build another half a million more, it is hard to see exactly what Starmer means when he says he backs families in a way his predecessors did not.

Then there is childcare – an expense which, for many, comes a close second to exorbitant rents. There’s a reason why couples are choosing to have children later than ever, why I frequently hear friends and acquaintances remark how they can only afford care for one child, even if they would like more. Is it right that childcare in this country is an organised racket, in which 84% of nurseries are in private hands (in Germany and France, the figure is closer to 4%)? Does wanton profiteering by nursery superchains constitute “family values”? The previous leadership offered significant childcare reform, namely 30 hours of free care for every child over two. Yet like “poverty”, the word “childcare” failed to make an appearance in Starmer’s speech yesterday.

It seems the Labour leader’s concept of “family values” is a form of right-wing identity politics in which, rather than the family being the primary site of social reproduction, it becomes an enclave of insular virtue for economic man. “There’s no such thing as society,” Thatcher memorably put it. “There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Starmer’s speech – devoid of class politics – was a spin on this.

The politics of families is seen as the natural province of the right. It shouldn’t be. Families across the country are living in terrible, and worsening, conditions because of how our economy is designed. Rich families enjoy the fruits of this, poor families are punished by it. The question is simple: with whom does Labour stand?

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and a contributing editor.

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