The issues faced by working parents will dominate the next election. It will not be a new crisis that takes the Labour party to victory in May 2015, it will be what it can promise families. In particular, those families who have felt seen their living standards continuously deteriorate since 2010.
Fortunately, this is one policy area the Labour party has some traction in. New Labour introduced changes which fundamentally improved living standards for working parents and their families. Flexi-time and job shares became commonplace and the benefits system was overhauled.
Tax credits were the cornerstone of this agenda. Money was redistributed towards families on low incomes, and additional support was made available to cover the cost of childcare.
But in the last four years this legacy has proved disappointingly susceptible to erosion. Benefits have not increased in line with rising prices; Sure Start centres have closed by the hundreds; and there are more than double the number of unemployed single parents compared to a decade ago.
When looked into a little deeper, it would seem that the coalition government is guilty of neglect. For example, parents can claim up to £210 per week for childcare depending on their income. However, childcare costs have gone up by 30% since 2010. This is five times faster than wages have increased, and eclipses the slight benefit upratings during this period.
If Labour is going to set the agenda on family policy, the party must be clear on exactly what it will deliver and how this will become part of the permanent welfare framework. Ed Miliband must carry on New Labour’s legacy but not be afraid to legislate.
The problem faced is one of permanence. As with many of the last government’s policies, they worked with the private sector to make life better for working parents; a light touch approach which avoided heavy-handed legislation. Through gentle nudges and subtle guidance the workplace became much more parent-friendly. The private sector was then forced to catch-up with a public sector which accommodated people’s home life.
However, this approach meant that many of the changes were not permanent and vulnerable to austerity measures. Consequently, in a post-recession climate where virtually all public employers are making cutbacks, jobs with school-friendly hours are tough to find. The worst-off are single parents, who are being pushed into a labour market which offers little besides zero-hour contracts.
This is why childcare and support for working parents will be one of the biggest battlegrounds at the next election. Despite the cultural shift the last Labour government brought about, we have not taken ownership of this policy area. For Miliband to lead, he needs to be radical and emphasise that a Labour government will introduce permanent changes to help working parents.