"Harry Potter" author JK Rowling gives an opinion on the upcoming UK election. I must admit, even though I enjoyed what I read of the Potter books and certainly doff my cap to her literary achievements, I never thought of her as anything more than a fantasy writer. But boy... she's blown that out of the water here. Any old fool can write a political article, the Huffington Post is famous for celebrity-written pieces, which get trumpeted on the front page like they're the sermon on the mound, but turn out to be a one-paragraph piece with little to no substance. Ooh, The Bloke From That Sit-Com says he thinks the republicans should not be quite so obstructionist. Wow, thanks for enlightening my day with that deeply personal and unique insight.
Not JK. Not by a long shot. This, as the kids say, is an epic win; a passionate political article which is based not just in superficial opinion, but on real experience. After reading this, I put on seven more caps, just so I could doff all of them. One by one. Twice.
I’ve never voted Tory before, but . . .” Those much parodied posters, with their photogenic subjects and their trite captions, remind me irresistibly of glossy greetings cards. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more general elections have in common with the birthdays of middle life. Both entail a lot of largely unwelcome fuss; both offer unrivalled opportunities for congratulation and spite, and you have seen so many go by that a lot of the excitement has worn off.
Nevertheless, they become more meaningful, more serious. Behind all the bombast and balloons there is the melancholy awareness of more time gone, the tally of ambitions achieved and of opportunities missed.
So here we are again, taking stock of where we are, and of where we would like to be, both as individuals and as a country. Personally, I keep having flashbacks to 1997, and not merely because of the most memorable election result in recent times. In January that year, I was a single parent with a four-year-old daughter, teaching part-time but living mainly on benefits, in a rented flat. Eleven months later, I was a published author who had secured a lucrative publishing deal in the US, and bought my first ever property: a three-bedroom house with a garden.
I had become a single mother when my first marriage split up in 1993. In one devastating stroke, I became a hate figure to a certain section of the press, and a bogeyman to the Tory Government. Peter Lilley, then Secretary of State at the DSS, had recently entertained the Conservative Party conference with a spoof Gilbert and Sullivan number, in which he decried “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list”. The Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood, castigated single-parent families from St Mellons, Cardiff, as “one of the biggest social problems of our day”. (John Redwood has since divorced the mother of his children.) Women like me (for it is a curious fact that lone male parents are generally portrayed as heroes, whereas women left holding the baby are vilified) were, according to popular myth, a prime cause of social breakdown, and in it for all we could get: free money, state-funded accommodation, an easy life.
An easy life. Between 1993 and 1997 I did the job of two parents, qualified and then worked as a secondary school teacher, wrote one and a half novels and did the planning for a further five. For a while, I was clinically depressed. To be told, over and over again, that I was feckless, lazy — even immoral — did not help.
The new Labour landslide marked a cessation in government hostilities towards families like mine. The change in tone was very welcome, but substance is, of course, more important than style. Labour had great ambitions for eradicating child poverty and while it succeeded, initially, in reversing the downward trend that had continued uninterrupted under Tory rule, it has not reached its own targets. There remains much more to be done.
This is not to say that there have not been real innovations to help lone-parent families. First, childcare tax credits were introduced by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor, which were a meaningful way of addressing the fact that the single biggest obstacle for lone parents returning to work was not innate slothfulness but the near-impossibility of affording adequate childcare.
Then came Sure Start centres, of which there are now more than 3,000 across the UK: service centres where families with children under 5 can receive integrated service and information. Unless you have previously grappled with the separate agencies involved in housing, education and childcare, you might not be able to appreciate what a great innovation these centres are. They link to Jobcentres, offering help to secure employment, and give advice on parenting, childcare, education, specialist services and even health. A National Audit Office memorandum published last January found that the overall effectiveness of 98 per cent of the childcare offered was judged to be “good or outstanding”.
So here we are, in 2010, with what promises to be another memorable election in the offing. Gingerbread (now amalgamated with the National Council for One Parent Families), keen to forestall the mud-slinging of the early Nineties, recently urged Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg to sign up to a campaign called Let’s Lose the Labels, which aims to fight negative stereotyping of lone parents. Here are just a few of the facts that sometimes get lost on the way to an easy story, or a glib stump speech: only 13 per cent of single parents are under 25 years old, the average age being 36. Fifty-two per cent live below the breadline and 26 per cent in “non-decent” housing. Single-parent families are more likely than couple families to have a member with a disability, which gives some idea of the strains that cause family break up. In spite of all the obstacles, 56.3 per cent of lone parents are in paid employment.
As there are 1.9 million single-parent votes up for grabs, it ought not to surprise anyone that all three leaders of the main political parties agreed to sign up to Gingerbread’s campaign. For David Cameron, however, this surely involves a difficult straddling act.
Yesterday’s Conservative manifesto makes it clear that the Tories aim for less governmental support for the needy, and more input from the “third sector”: charity. It also reiterates the flagship policy so proudly defended by David Cameron last weekend, that of “sticking up for marriage”. To this end, they promise a half-a-billion pound tax break for lower-income married couples, working out at £150 per annum.
I accept that my friends and I might be atypical. Maybe you know people who would legally bind themselves to another human being, for life, for an extra £150 a year? Perhaps you were contemplating leaving a loveless or abusive marriage, but underwent a change of heart on hearing about a possible £150 tax break? Anything is possible; but somehow, I doubt it. Even Mr Cameron seems to admit that he is offering nothing more than a token gesture when he tells us “it’s not the money, it’s the message”.
Page 1 of 2