An Open Letter To Labour: Support Family-Based Care Too And You've Got My Vote

I love an election. Ever since I voted Labour in 1997 as a newly enfranchised young woman, I have stayed up to watch election night live. Incidentally, 2015 was the first marathon where I had to care for young children the next day. Itme.
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I love an election. Ever since I voted Labour in 1997 as a newly enfranchised young woman, I have stayed up to watch election night live. Incidentally, 2015 was the first marathon where I had to care for young children the next day. It broke me.

This 2017 snap election? In terms of its wider politics, the choice ahead is simple. We either vote Tory or we vote for a hope of better things for future generations. If we could build the Welfare State from the ashes of the Second World War, we can build a better future from the grime of Conservative austerity.

So (and this is likely to be obvious to those who know me and who know my work) I'm with you, Jeremy. People are waking up to the decency of the Labour manifesto and your personal qualities and tenacity - a breath of fresh Westminster air, for many. 'Persistent and patient' beats 'weak and wobbly', hands down.

Like others, I want to see a departure from an uber-individualist society in which we compete for the scraps while our collective wellbeing resembles a perverse political game of whack-a-mole.

But forgive me a pregnant pause.

I also want to see a caring society. One which nurtures a humane view of what constitutes worthwhile and important labour.

First, some personal stuff. Recent care responsibilities have hit me like ten-tonne election bus. The joys of caring for children 24-hours a day through childhood sickness and viruses and vomiting and fevers. All in a day's unwaged work. I've been unable to be as politically active as I would have liked. But things are looking up.

Now to policy. In short, I see there is (yet again) a juicy carrot, daubed 'childcare' dangled within a manifesto or two. The 'carrots' family - those who want to delegate care to enable or support them to work in the paid economy - will be rightly empowered.

But you know what they say: peas and carrots. Was about the 'peas'? Those families who do, or would ideally want to, care for their young children themselves?

Those who are forced out to paid work against their wishes may well be reluctantly grateful for a childcare policy to reduce the burden on their wallets. However, they will nevertheless grate at the lack of opportunity to decline the very childcare they would forgo if only they had the option.

And those who struggle financially to provide family care? They are either neglected in a discarded pod in the political allotment of perceived anachronisms or beaten with an economic stick which says 'GDP'.

So, I say: Give peas a chance. We are many. Not few.

Puns aside. Our problem is that at one end of the political spectrum subsidised childcare remains a centrepiece of progressive politics: free women from the drudgery and burden of caring for our young children so that we can do the productive stuff of paid work in the public sphere and economy. At the other end, childcare remains the sucker punch from the right: compel us to engage in low-paid, insecure, work with threats of benefits sanctions, but with the bitter salve that is subsidised childcare. To add insult to political injury, promises on childcare increasingly become bestowed with a rosette insidiously reading 'Others Can Do it Better than Mothers' in, say, child development.

So, I will say to you: if I vote Labour, it will not be with an endorsement of policies which fail to see the wider family portrait.

It will be with the following, polite, invitation: please include family-based care within your economic and tax plans.

It will be with a friendly invitation to consider a homecare allowance such as seen in Finland: parents are entitled either to state payment for care of their under-threes, or state payment to nurseries should they prefer. That is equality. No particular form of childcare should receive preferential treatment in policy, yet that is precisely what occurs under our current system. Any policy touted as supporting families should require a gold standard that all families have the right to choose family-based care if that is right for them, free from penalty in tax and allowances, and entitled to the equal investment on a per-child basis as would attach to a professional childcare provider.

It will be with a knowing wink to basic income trials.

It will be with a question: why should family-based carers of young children, the sick, the elderly, be deprived of a living wage?

It will be with an invitation to restore and increase one of the earliest Parliamentary feminist victories: Eleanor Rathbone's Family Allowance.

It will be with utter disdain towards the family tax penalty. Tax. A hot potato for Labour, always, I know. But our current system is fundamentally flawed. It hits average incomes by thousands of pounds a year simply for the trespass of providing care to children within the family. Those who make significant financial sacrifice to care for their young children at home have redundant personal allowances that may as well be shrivelled umbilical cords. Forget happy families, no family is alike yet we are all taxed in the same way. As individuals. It's failing us. We need to see families as units rather than collections of disconnected housemates. We need the tax system to take into account any caring responsibilities, interdependences, and the number of dependants. In effect, in assessing income or wealth, look beyond the paycheck recipient: see the mouths it is required to feed.

Our entitlement to state support for caring has been under sustained attack under austerity and we remain assessed as a family unit for our entitlement to state support. Yet, our families are treated as a collection of individuals to maximise what the state takes in tax from those even on average incomes. To adopt the language of trade unions, the state freeloads upon and exploits our caring labour.

We need to recognise caring as crucial to the wellbeing of our societies. Without a shift in our thinking, we will continue down the road of increased commodification or outsourcing of care for the young, the sick and the elderly and continue to marginalise carers.

To put into current context. The dementia tax is a symptom of a sickness in our infrastructure: a failure to recognise the need for care and the needs of carers themselves. Another beauty: the Tories suggest that we should all have the right to take a year away from our jobs to care for someone, unwaged. What is this but a gift that punches us in the face with a fist full of fake compassion and literally leaving us with an empty pocket for our cares?


What we need is a systemic rethink of how we support care work and carers: to recognise that we are already equal; just exploited and unwaged. We need to recognise the politics of childcare and the tax penalty on family-based care.

Pretty peas.


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