[Insert well-worn political cliché channelling Philip Larkin here.] This week started very well for Labour, with the party gaining significant praise after announcing their intention to double paternity leave to four weeks. They then took a two point lead over the Tories in the polls, but despite its early promise, the party’s week swiftly nose-dived with Labour being accused of patronising women with their choice of colour for their Woman to Woman campaign vehicle.
The fact that deputy leader Harriet Harman, a proud feminist, made the decision to launch Labour’s campaign to reach out to women and court the female vote with a pink van driven by a man, reflects a party struggling to get the basics right in terms of strategy and in serious need of an image makeover.
Yet Harman is right when she says that the issues she and Shadow Women and Equalities Minister Gloria de Piero will be discussing with women on the campaign trail are more important than the colour of their vehicle. The Tories can sneer at what is, it has to be said, a patronising Labour gimmick, but they are doing so on shaky ground, for a party which has in government forced the burden of austerity disproportionately on to women and has few answers on issues such as childcare and the cost of living.
Ed Miliband’s announcement earlier this week that Labour would be doubling paternity leave was met with considerable support, but also surprise. Under Miliband’s leadership, Labour have come up with precious few policies that could be described as either genuinely progressive or economically viable, and this new slant on childcare is something which achieves both of those things and is something which the Labour leader deserves credit for, and will surely boost his appeal with women.
However, #pinkvangate could well be used as an analogy for so-called ‘women’s issues’. The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman made the point on Twitter on Wednesday that the bulk of both Labour and the Tories’ policies on ‘women’s issues’ focuses on childcare, often resulting in a lack of representation for childless women. As far as both main parties are concerned, pink stands for childcare, cost of living and general women’s concerns, while blue stands for, well, every other policy area.
It is not an unreasonable assumption for both Labour and the Tories to make that these are the issues which matter most to women and thus the ones which they should be campaigning on. Numerous polls reflect a male-female split in terms of concerns with issues (women being more concerned with the NHS and cost of living and men being more preoccupied with the economy). Yet if Labour are serious about having a genuinely progressive policy towards childcare, the cost of living and other ‘women’s issues’, then they must abandon the tagline ‘women’s issues’ as such pigeonholing is far more patronising to women than a van of any colour.
At the crux of the paternity pay issue is maternity pay. Labour’s plans for increasing paternity leave and paternity pay do not appear to include a rise in either maternity leave or maternity pay, leading to accusations that this is simply a bribe to get men to shoulder a fair share of the burden of parenthood, something they are not naturally willing to do.
The assumption that all new fathers who do not take up the existing offer of paternity leave do not because they feel they can’t afford to, as opposed to a lack of willingness to do so, is an overly charitable one. In other countries, where paternity leave has been revamped, a crucial factor in encouraging men to take up the offer has been increasing financial benefits.
Not that that is the case for all; an American study last year found that 86% of American men wouldn’t take any paternity leave at all unless they were paid at least 70% of their salary. This is a crucial point for any potential future Labour government intending to implement this policy. Not all men are in a sufficiently well-paid job to be able to take the time off work to help raise their child, unless they are receiving paternity pay to a reasonable degree. Thus there is a clear danger that this policy will only help middle class fathers in well paid jobs and will arguably make life more difficult for working class fathers at the opposite end of the wage spectrum.
In addition, there needs to be much better communication from the government towards parents on the issue to let them know exactly what their paternity and maternity rights are. California made history in 2002 by becoming the first US state to increase paternity leave to six weeks, but by 2007, just 28% of adults in the state were aware that new fathers were entitled to the six weeks.
Arguably the most important factor in revolutionising paternity leave in Britain is normalising the idea of men taking time off work to help raise their child. A TUC poll less than two years ago found that just one out of every 172 new fathers was taking paternity leave, and many fathers do not do so because of fears that taking time off work would harm their credibility with their employer and set their career back a step or two.
This is going to be a tricky issue for Labour to negotiate, given the party’s current unpopularity amongst big businesses, but it is something that must be negotiated if they are to be successful in making life easier for both mothers and fathers. A simple idea to help normalise the idea of men taking paternity leave is to reward businesses who embrace the idea willingly with tax breaks; much in the same way as businesses could be rewarded thus for offering more apprenticeships and entry level jobs. At the same time, big businesses are in a much better position than their smaller counterparts when it comes to embracing men taking paternity leave as they have far greater resources to draw on; Labour must re-learn how to be the champion of small businesses and work with small businesses and reassure them that they will not be left high and dry when their employees take paternity leave.
This policy could be the policy that gets Labour back on track. For it to be successful, Ed Miliband and Labour are going to have to be bold, brave and re-define their agenda; not an easy thing to do with three months to go until the election. The party have lost their progressive agenda somewhere along the reign of Ed The Unready and if they want to be back in government come May, they must find a new one.