Monday, 29 November 2010

Howard Flight and unspeakable truths

Howard Flight is in trouble for two reasons: he used insensitive language and he expressed a sentiment that is still taboo yet is felt by many people.  John Rentoul's recent blog on speaking the unspeakable is good on this.  Most people would agree that It is only responsible to bring children into the world if you can afford to bring them up.  

As a so-called middle class parent of two young children and a stepson, in a relatively well-paid job, in a household with two incomes, I am, shall we say, feeling very 'squeezed' financially. This is not because of profligate spending but thanks to the ludicrously expensive rail fares for my commute (£7000 pa - meaning I must earn £10k per year to pay for this) soon to rise thanks to the Government, the vast sums we must fork out on child care each month and because my mortgage repayments on a very small house account for over 50% of my disposable income. 

If people in good jobs, who are not asking the state to support them are unable to make ends meet and are about to be squeezed even further, surely they are less likely to have children.  This is not to say that poorer people should not receive benefits, merely to point out the ridiculous nature of modern British life in which families with two good incomes struggle to bring up a family.   Mr Flight should have emphasised this rather than make provocative statements about 'breeding' amongst the less well off.  However, he should not be condemned for expressing the frustration that many so-called better off people are feeling.

Of course people in genuine poverty struggle much, much more than we do and of course the state's resources should be directed at assisting them.  This equation works in normal circumstances - ones where those who work hard, aspire to earn more money and pay their taxes are able to live in a comfortable manner.  But there is a significant danger, in the present climate, that many politicians are either deliberately ignoring or singularly failing to understand that for vast swathes of working Britain, it is increasingly hard to make ends meet and yes - to bring up children - even in households with one or even two good salaries.  Iain Martin brilliantly summarizes these themes in his Wall Street Journal Europe blog and shows how Cameron et al are seemingly oblivious to the concerns of this group of electors.  Perhaps because of their own privileged backgrounds, or perhaps a result of political hubris, they don't appear to "get it", if we judge them by their inept handling of the changes to child benefit.

Ed Miliband, whom I did not support for the Labour leadership, but whom I wish well, is very definitely on to something when he talks about the "squeezed middle".  John Humphrey's inability to understand the concept is not sufficient reason to condemn it as vague.  If Miliband can link up his thinking on the "squeezed middle" with the ideas he espoused in his conference speech about improving people's quality of life, then we in the Labour Party could start to put some clear water (neither red nor blue) between us and the Government.  Cameron's happiness index is a welcome innovation on the surface, but where Labour can show true vision and attract new support is by exposing that the Government is proposing nothing which will actually enhance happiness.  For example, I doubt that reducing or limiting the working week, or increasing flexible working is high up the Government's agenda.  Where are the government initiatives calling for couples to be able to share childcare?  It seems unlikely that they'd take steps to allow more building on green belt land so as to gradually lower house prices and increase the supply of housing, both private and social.  Yet these are the very things that might enhance happiness - they might even help with bringing about the Big Society!  These are areas which are ripe for new thinking from Labour supporters, members and politicians as the party develops its new policy under the policy review announced by Miliband at the weekend.

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