The Tories have got tax right: they’ve just got marriage wrong

by Peter Watt

My youngest sister just got married in South Africa. About 30 of our large family went for a holiday of a lifetime to celebrate the big event. We had an incredible time and it made me think once again about the importance and influence of our family. We provide each other with friendship, informal social care, safety, emotional support, counselling, nurturing, parenting and parenting advice, financial support and of course a sense of belonging. Of course, we aren’t alone in this. The family has to be one of the most important influences on everyone’s life.

It is for this reason that “supporting families” is something that all political parties claim as central to their social policy. At the last election, the Tories emphasised their flagship policy of recognising marriage in the tax system.

Rightly, Labour argued that this was not only simplistic but also discriminated against families that do not include a married couple. But we lost the election. And the budget saw the Tories take their first small steps in implementing their approach. There is no doubt that over the coming years they will continue to use the tax system to aggressively demonstrate their intent.

Labour must therefore rethink its offer to families by the time of the next general election. Simply continuing to oppose the Tories approach will not be enough. In fact, it will also risk alienating some of the families who will by then be benefiting from Tory taxation policies. On the other hand, as families across the country begin to feel the financial squeeze, getting the right balance of support for hard-pressed families could be an important part of Labour’s offer to the electorate.

As we think about the future, it is useful to reflect on the impact of our past approaches. Over the years we have invested heavily in supporting families through the welfare state: from child benefit to child tax-credit. Both are being undermined by the current government. We have introduced policies aimed at supporting family life including paternity leave. We have legislated to mitigate the consequences of family breakdown with important protections provided by social services to families and children. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. So Labour’s record on families really is a proud one.

But there is a problem. For many voters, we have allowed our approach to the welfare state to undermine our credentials on supporting families. It may not be fair, but some perceive that we are more interested in the small number of occasions when families fail (or are unable) to take responsibility. That we care more about giving handouts to those not interested in working than supporting those struggling in work. And that our skewed priorities have led us to take even more tax from those who work to pay for this.

Sometimes, of course, things go wrong in families and problems occur. Teenage pregnancies, divorce and separation or relatives who need help to remain independent, to name just a few. But on the whole families themselves will deal with these problems without any state intervention. Most teenage mums are supported by their parent(s). Most divorced or separated couples continue to care for their children. And most families support infirm relatives pretty well. On the whole, families left to their own devices will provide better support to their children, parents and relatives than the state ever could.

That is why the Tories’ approach on tax and marriage should not be dismissed out of hand. Yes, it is flawed, as it concentrates on “married families”. But it is not flawed in its basic assumption that struggling families feel that they are paying too much tax.

And that is the space that Labour should aggressively move into as we develop our family-friendly manifesto for the next election. We should tell all families, not just married ones, that we know that they are struggling financially and that we intend to make sure that they keep a bigger proportion of their earnings than they currently do. In other words, we will aim to tax them less. We should state categorically that this is not just a tax policy, but a key element of our family friendly approach. Because we believe that they are the best people to decide what to spend their money on.

This is not a matter of triangulation. It is a matter of fairness and of offering a practical social policy. The most efficient unit of most people’s welfare protection is their family. For most people, it is their family that is their first port of call when things go wrong. Supporting families means easing the strain on the state.

We have a record on families to be proud of. Our next manifesto should have the family at its heart; distinct from the Tories who have chosen to single out married families. And the central plank of this manifesto should be lower levels of tax. Families across the country will be delighted.

As someone once said, “It’s the family, stupid”.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

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9 Responses to “The Tories have got tax right: they’ve just got marriage wrong”

  1. Robert says:

    Well families are lucky then if nobody is disabled if you are then New labours not the party for you married or not.

  2. iain ker says:

    om child benefit to child tax-credit. …We have introduced policies aimed at supporting family life including paternity leave. We have legislated to mitigate the consequences of family breakdown with important protections provided by social services to families and children. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.


    Tip of the iceberg. Quite.

    I think in his time as Chancellor Captain Insensible tested to destruction the idea of using the tax system to ‘socially engineer’. It was the only toy in his toybox, so of course he kept playing with it. How many different versions were there during his tenure of child assistance? 8 or 9? What did the 7th achieve that the 4th didn’t, the 6th achieve that the 2nd didn’t? What they all achieved of course was increasing the complexity and cost involved.

    Oh for a flat tax and a government who doesn’t think the best way to run a country is to create a Client State and to pay it for its votes.

    Unfortunately, TUCLabour seems to think that spending money is something to brag about.

    For ‘look at our successes’ read, ‘look at the money we spent’.

  3. donpaskini says:

    Hi Peter,

    Do you really want Labour to offer tax cuts for “all families”, and to argue that the key measure of being family friendly is how much we plan to cut taxes? I would imagine that what would happen is that the Tories would respond by offering to cut taxes by more. I don’t really see how we could win a tax-cutting race with the Tories.

    Your article creates an artificial choice between families either helping each other “left to their own devices” or being helped by the state. My experience is that most families don’t see this as an either/or, but as mutually reinforcing. Sure Start, free nursery education, childcare vouchers, health visitors, parenting classes, holiday playschemes and all the rest are services which help families to support each other.

    Reducing taxes on low and middle earners could play a role in supporting families. But given the choice, Labour should prioritise new services to help families with things like childcare and housing over tax cuts for higher earners.

  4. Rachel says:

    I take it then, as a single person without children, I can just take a running jump?

  5. Peter Watt says:

    Rachel – I clearly make the point that ‘families’ means extended families! It is the notion that people are best placed to decide what to spend their money on that is important not the type if immediate family unit they are in that is important. It is the Tories that are prioritising tax breaks for married couples.

  6. Laura says:

    Peter – I agree with Rachel. The rhetoric about ‘hard-working families’ which in practice means ‘parents with small children’ as though this was the only group of people in society who deserved anything (or worked hard) and the rest of us were just there to cover for them at work and pay taxes so that these people could get tax credits, is one of the things which left me disaffected from the Labour government. What about those of us who care for elderly relatives – or who struggle to find accommodation in the private sector or stump up for a deposit without a loving family to provide support? You yourself seem to have jumped from emotive rhetoric about ‘families’ to a practical discussion which is all about parents and young children. Labour hasn’t ‘supported families’: it has created a client state of parents.

  7. Chris says:


    Yet another article where you say that unless Labour basically adopts tory policy X all is lost. I’m not in agreement. Does opinion polling show massive support for marriage tax breaks? Rather than giving tax breaks to different vital voter groups, fiddling with income tax complicates it and generally makes it more regressive, why don’t we give everybody a tax cut by reducing VAT.

  8. AmberStar says:

    Labour would definitely lose a tax-cutting war with the Tories ‘cos they’d be willing to go to ground zero & Labour aren’t.

    As to all your blue Labour, family not state stuff, you can keep it. Families are awesome but I can’t ask my lorry-driving brother to take my tonsils out. If Labour want to win, we can do it with people friendly policies: Protect the NHS & cut prescriptions charges to zero in England; introduce rent control for private tenancies (people love their families but don’t want to live with them forever); improve public transport & make it cheaper so that people don’t miss out on family life through being stuck in traffic jams every morning & night.

    There’s a whole raft of people-friendly policies that Labour could pursue by advocating price controls on housing, energy & transport; & a whole lot more by using taxes to promote social good instead of just emptying one person’s pocket to fill another’s. It’s what you do in government & what you do with the tax revenues that matters.

  9. iain ker says:

    Chris says:
    why don’t we give everybody a tax cut by reducing VAT.


    Aw come on, Chris, get with it. (Let me get my klaxon out). Don’t you know that


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