Shafting Women – Conservative Family Policy and The Blair Years

Argus title : Don’t buy “The Blair Years”. It’s author like so many in politics, is abusive to women.

My husband is very fond of reading political biographies and diaries and often I buy them for him. However, one I certainly do not intend to purchase is Alastair Campbell’s “The Blair Years”.

I can see no good reason to offer financial support to this already wealthy superannuated bully. I object to the fact that he wrote pornography when he was a young journalist and has never apologized for it. His macho strutting and tacky vulgarity repel me – and his simple nastiness, especially to women. I have no brief for Clare Short, but he of all people, is in no position to say that she “turns his stomach”.

It offends me that for almost a decade, while standing at the Prime Minister’s side, he threatened and insulted people in grossly sexist terms with complete impunity, regularly hurling the c-word at political opponents or anyone who challenged his position. In all that time, nobody stopped him – which was another small, but not insignificant reason to despise the gaggle of yes men and women Blair gathered about him. Campbell’s sticky fingers left their mark on every aspect of the new Labour project, most notoriously in Iraq. While Tony Blair postured and strutted across the domestic and world stage, Campbell was always there in the background, stripping politics of substance and truth, spinning dross as if it were gold.

It perturbs me to see the BBC and newspapers that Campbell so successfully bullied and manipulated in the past, now actively promoting this self-serving book. It bothers me that Campbell’s educationalist partner, Fiona Millar, was so concerned about the way in which she had been portrayed in his Diaries that she had to respond via a newspaper.

The best response to arrogance and vanity is to starve it of its audience. So I hope that, if people must read the book, they will do as I advised my husband – borrow a copy or reserve it at the library.

The past few weeks have been an interesting time for women. The political commentators were obviously completely unprepared for Harriet Harman’s election as Deputy Leader. There were a few of the usual bilious attacks on “Harriet Harperson’s” feminism, but in general the newspapers didn’t seem to quite know what to make of her election, except that it may help Gordon Brown to secure the middle class southern vote.

This rather misses the point. For the first time in more than 10 years the party has a deputy who does not use foul language towards women or put his hand up their skirts. On the contrary, it has a deputy leader who is committed to gender equality and to support for families – one who is not afraid to speak out about domestic and sexual violence as realities in many women’s lives. Harman may have the look of a head girl, but she will play very well indeed with women voters.

David Cameron understood the significance of Harman’s appointment and moved swiftly to counter it. Sayeeda Warsi, a British-born Muslim has been given responsibility for community cohesion in the Tory’s shadow cabinet and has been nominated for a peerage. Unfortunately, this has triggered a deluge of negative internet comment from male Tory voters, who like neither her gender nor her religion.
A solicitor by profession, she worked for the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Service and in her own law practice as well as on a forced marriage project with the Foreign Office, and in Kashmir for a women’s empowerment charity. All this may terrify unreconstructed knuckle-draggers in the Tory heartlands, but, like the election of Harriet Harman, is likely to be attractive to women.
Unfortunately for Conservative women there may be little else in Cameron’s new Tory Party for which they can be grateful. Until recently Cameron seemed sure-footed, able to please grassroots Conservatives while keeping his finger on the pulse of floating voters. There had even been cautious optimism that he might be about to unveil some socially progressive policies in respect of women and the family. This has proved far from the case.

Apparently rattled by the hornets’ nest raised by his comments on grammar schools and Gordon Brown’s recent good results in the polls, Cameron has allowed Roman Catholic arch-Thatcherite Ian Duncan Smith free rein on family policy – and what he has come up with could sink Cameron.

Despite the party’s desperate need to woo women voters, Ian Duncan Smith has successfully corralled Cameron into a distinctly “old Tory” attack on single parents. And let us be clear, it is single mothers who are in the frame.

This is a bad idea in electoral terms, for the Tory heartlands are full of women who care for children alone following bereavement, failed marriages, escape from domestic violence or unplanned pregnancies. Everyone knows somebody in these circumstances and most will realise that it is unjust to penalize them while benefiting married couples.

The journalist Polly Toynbee commented “More money for married families means less for children of single parents who are much the poorest. If it’s a small sum, it will have no “incentive” effect. If it’s large enough to push couples up the aisle, children of single parents will fall even further behind the rest. The child abandoned by its father suffers, while the philandering father marrying for the fourth time gains.”

Ian Duncan Smith’s proposal for tax breaks for married couples were publicised as a means to support marriage. In reality they are a charter to drive women back into the home, for they will benefit married couples, but only if one partner stays at home. There are no prizes for guessing which partner it will be, or which partner will pocket the money.

Time and again research has revealed that tax benefits paid to male “sole bread winners” are rarely spent on the home or children. One of the reasons that Child Benefit is so universally supported is that it is not means tested, comes to the primary parent as of right and, research indicates, is almost always spent on children
Cameron’s pledge “to overhaul the tax and benefit system” to support marriage will benefit relatively few couples, but it will be paid for by all lone parents who, according to the proposals, will be forced to work full time when their children reach the age of 11. And, as night follows day, further cuts to their benefit will come and will disproportionately affect women.
Married couples who both work and attempt to share childcare will receive no tax benefit under these proposals. Those who pay no tax will receive nothing while tax payers in the highest income bracket will receive twice the benefit of couples in the lower tax band.

Ian Duncan Smith’s proposed marriage bonus will create an incentive to philanderers to stay married – though not necessarily to the same person. It will also provide an additional motive for abusive men to prevent their existing partner from either working or leaving – and a powerful disincentive to abused women to free themselves and their children from violent marriages.

More than 1 in 4 British women will experience domestic violence at some time in their lives and many millions of British children grow up with it. Despite the best efforts of specialist charities, few families receive help and the criminal justice system fails to protect them. The social consequences in terms of mental health problems, addiction, family break down and crime are enormous and growing.

It is true that a disproportionate number of male children from lone parent families under-perform educationally and become involved in crime. This is not because they are brought up by their mothers. It is more commonly because the male role models they have had are abusive and misogynist.

Whether political commentators choose to acknowledge this or not, it remains the brutal truth. And unless and until government deals with this, we will continue to live in what Duncan Smith calls a “broken society”.

Politicians need to understand that when the state and media attack lone mothers they simply echo the insults which abused women and their children hear, day in and day out

A woman who had recently escaped her violent husband explained this to me:

“He told me I was a useless bitch so many times I started to accept it. Now my son calls me a useless bitch it as well, I half believe him. And I can see in my daughter’s eyes she thinks the same because I can’t stand up for her.”

Of course, Ian Duncan Smith doesn’t call lone parents useless bitches.

But if he persists with this policy he might as well.

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