Childcare is back on the political agenda. In part this is because although Labour diminished the inequalities which entrenched during 18 years of Conservative rule (see figure 1), the party’s commitment to reduce child poverty by half was unfulfilled. Equally, childcare costs in the UK remain the second highest in the OECD, contributing in no small measure to the current squeeze on middle incomes. Nevertheless, it is not at all clear that this political awareness currently extends to the public imagination. How do we make this transition?
More should have been done to sustain the momentum of New Labour’s early years’ agenda, but when compared to the patchwork of provision inherited in 1997 there is much to take pride in too. Substantial investment in high quality childcare, Sure Start centres, working tax credits and more helped the most vulnerable and marked a serious attempt to institute ‘progressive universalism’ in this area.
Conscious of the need to revive this current, a number of arguments in support of expanded childcare provision have been made in recent years. Among the strongest, a widely cited report by the IPPR demonstrated that the returns to the exchequer of implementing a free universal childcare policy could be considerable.
According to this view – widely held in Labour circles – that is precisely the policy a credible centre-left programme should encompass during a period of budgetary tightening: one that combines a strong sense of justice with fiscal realism. Similarly, perhaps in attempt to rescue David Cameron’s promise to lead the most family friendly government in Europe, the coalition too has established its own commission on childcare.
Defenders of equal life chances and gender equality should be heartened by the political debate on childcare – but where is the public in this? The question is a pertinent one if we hope to see state investment in childcare grow. Recent polling by the Fabian Society indicates that in spite of Labour’s achievements, the public remain unconvinced of this area of expenditure. In our poll, almost half of people think ‘the current balance is about right’ in childcare provision. Interestingly, these figures contrast with provision at the end of life which is marked by consensus: across Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat 44 per cent, 56 per cent, and 49 per cent believe ‘tax rates should rise, to pay for greater provision of services’ in elderly care (see figure 2).
Have our parties got their priorities wrong? Not necessarily, but the centre-left may need to re-think the arguments by which it approaches childcare in order for the public to share its vision. This is not to suggest that the argument from tax receipts in favour of increased childcare spending is unappealing: the economic case is a necessary component of the argument. But by focusing only on utilitarian reasons, we may surrender the opportunity to engage in a deeper conversation about the society we choose to live in.
The centre-left should take this opportunity to develop a narrative around childcare spending grounded in a shared conception of the good society. This more far-reaching narrative can be guided by a number of simple questions, inextricably related to the issue of childcare. Do we want to live in a society where the nature of work imposes a choice for women between a career and spending more time with their children? Do we want to live in a society where women who want to return to work after childbirth are often made to feel guilty for neglecting their ‘natural’ parenting responsibilities? Do we want to live in a society where the role of the community in raising a child goes unrecognised? If a community takes more care of people at the beginning and end of their lives, might people in turn take more care of their community over the life course?
In themselves these questions are important, but equally the centre-left should recognise the good pragmatic reasons for attending to them. The more our commitment to childcare is also motivated by this wider set of issues the stronger the resilience of this social institution may become. This involves making a case which unites citizens around the social significance of early years’ provision. Further, an extended commitment to childcare could act as the policy choice which illustrates the principles and values underpinning today’s Labour party: responsibility, mutual dependence, and the justice of giving every child the right to a more equal chance.