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Why don't the left support the family?
Despite evidence which shows an association between family strength and welfare, left-wingers seldom talk about this issue. Why?
Recently, Patrick O’Flynn wrote an article which underlined the lack of attention to family policy across the main parties. O’Flynn was writing about Britain, yet this phenomenon occurs across the West, particularly on the left. As O’Flynn observed, this silence is puzzling. Family strength predicts several welfare outcomes, studies finding that children with married parents achieve better health, schooling and cognitive outcomes. Moreover, low-income groups are more vulnerable to negative effects. It is difficult to compare the influence of family strength with that of benefits and minimum wages, measures being different, but the influence appears to be at least comparable; family strength has a critical influence on adult and child welfare, particularly among low-income groups.
Though O’Flynn argued that the unfashionable profile of the family explained this silence, this issue can be examined from the perspective of values and institutions. Many parties are culpable, O’Flynn attributing Conservative diffidence to Boris Johnson’s private record, but the attitude of the left is most interesting. Welfare is a major preoccupation of left-wingers. Some label opponents ‘scum’ or send death threats, merely because they disapprove of certain welfare policies. Given these attitudes, the silence on family policy is exceedingly odd.
In fairness to individuals, this reflects lack of awareness, few being familiar with relevant data. This is a problem of the path dependent development of parties, individual attitudes reflecting party positions. Because of the peculiar development of the Western left, grouping middle-class liberals with low-income groups, left-wing parties have developed in a manner which can be unconducive to the welfare of low-income groups.
Liberals value autonomy and self-realization, such postmaterial values becoming increasingly popular in recent decades. Though most liberals favour welfare, the principle being important to the work of liberal philosophers such as Hobhouse and Rawls, this tends to be a secondary concern. Consequently, when principles of autonomy and welfare clash, autonomy tends to prevail. Family policy is a classic case. Because family strength lies in tension with classic liberal causes such as rights to divorce and abortion, family policy is ignored. As O’Flynn notes, family policy has no celebrity endorsers; were such figures to emerge, they would probably be mocked.
In recent decades, tensions between autonomy and welfare have worsened. Affluent liberals increasingly dominate the left, meaning that parties espouse policies which are in tension with the interests of working classes. Aside from family policy, there is the topic of immigration; low-income groups tend to prefer secure borders, perceiving immigration as a threat to wages and community cohesion. Cultural conservatism and economic redistribution complement each another; for reasons of security, lower classes desire societies in which living conditions are decent but tradition prevails. Movements which combine these goals have been uncommon in Western countries, yet research suggests that this is anomalous; a study of 99 countries found that it was more common for right-wing cultural views to be coupled with left-wing economic views, particularly among poorer citizens.
Given this crisis of the left, one wonders which movements best represent low-income groups. In Poland, the PiS government has strengthened the welfare state whilst upholding family values, this approach resolving contradictions of the Western left and being electorally successful. Despite this success, other parts of PiS policy are egregious; the party has attacked liberal democracy, near banned abortion and alienated European partners. Right populism suffers from its own contradictions, meaning that it creates other problems.
Beyond the populist right, mainstream conservatives have combined left-wing economics and cultural conservatism, the Conservative Party moving in this direction under Boris Johnson. Notwithstanding some progress, these parties are not natural homes for low-income groups. For example, the Conservative Party continues to have strong links with businesses, many in the party urging deregulation.
Low-income groups have no obvious political home. Though the centre-left once provided this home, such parties have changed irrevocably. The UK Labour Party is a notable case, middle-class liberals dominating the party. Given this reality, the most one can hope is that parties occasionally address low-income concerns. In fairness to parties such as Labour and the Conservatives, this is sometimes done; both parties have welfare policies which target low-income groups. But family policy remains a conspicuous gap. Addressing this area might be clever politics, particularly for conservative parties. Political advantage aside, left-wingers claim to be committed to welfare and evidence. Both are consistent with good family policy; the left should examine this area more carefully.
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