Families need less tax and more time

by Peter Watt

Four years ago my Dad died. He had suffered with cancer for a few years, which forced him to retire early. He appeared to have recovered, but in 2007 he suffered a relapse. After just six months, he died at home with his family around him. It was a terrible blow to us all, but we were all with him when we he died. If there is such a thing as a good death, this was it. Eight of his children, their partners, countless grandkids and his wife of nearly 40 years, my Mum, were all with him. We cried, said some prayers and goodbye as he slipped into a coma and then, mercifully, died.

Over the next few months I missed him terribly. He was my Dad, of course, but also my friend, my advisor and an oasis of calm. I had known him my whole life, after all, and at moments of great stress, when I was celebrating or when I was alone, the pain I felt was intense. At really unexpected moments I would find myself welling up and crying. I remember sitting on a train crying uncontrollably to the concerned looks of fellow passengers. Slowly the incidences of acute pain lessened in frequency. They still happened, they still do, but I was also able to reflect on his life and my time with him.

In reality, I only got to know my Dad well as an adult. When I was younger he was all too often absent. Why? Because he was working. In order to keep his family fed and watered and the bills paid, he worked hard, very hard. He wasn’t hugely well paid, not badly paid either, but his job was demanding and required him to be out early in the morning, often returning after we were in bed, and some weekend working. He was always tired. Not just tired, but stressed. And that made him pretty crotchety. At times he was bloody moody. The result was that for much of my childhood, he was either not there or when he was he was quite hard to get on with. My Mum was the central figure in our lives and we could go days without really seeing Dad. And then there are the cherished memories of the times when he was relaxed or a bit more open.

As I became an adult our relationship changed and I got to know him better. I was able to understand the pressures he was under and could unload my worries on him. If times were tough, for either of us, then we could often sort it out, or at least get it in perspective, over a couple of pints. And when he was forced to resign, he became a more relaxed and probably nicer person. In the last years of his life I, and I suspect the rest of the family, got to know my Dad better than we had ever known him.  Although I had always loved him, I think that I also liked him more in those last few years.

But of course the dilemma faced by my Mum and Dad is the same for most parents. How to balance work and home. It is a dilemma that I have struggled with over the years and have certainly got it very wrong in the past. I suspect my eldest three kids would recognise much of the description of life with my Dad. I can only say sorry to them, and hope that I have longer to make it up to them than my Dad did. I hope that my youngest three are getting a slightly better service from their Dad.

This dilemma is getting worse for parents. As the cost of living increases, so do the pressures to work more hours. Do we risk more debt or be better parents? Food prices are going up, fuel, insurance, clothes and travel likewise. Many people are worse off now than they were. Job security is low, which means that now is not the time to be telling your employer that you need to take extra time to be with your family. Many families have both parents working, with many parents having to take on two jobs. This all adds to a terrible sense that the balance between work and family is out of kilter for many. Family life suffers, and the important time spent between parents and their children is eaten into. The stresses and strains of life and sheer tiredness may mean that what little family time there is, is spoilt.

And that is why Ed Miliband has been right to focus on the quality of life for the squeezed middle. He should return to it quickly and with vigour. It is a theme that will resonate for many. It goes beyond the vitally important, but limited, stress on simple job creation. Dealing with it will require an innovative approach. And I hope that in grappling with it, he does not simply fall back on a centrally driven work place rights programme. Parental leave clearly has a part to play, but it also risks alienating employers and stifling job creation.

Ed will need to look at a balance of approaches, but at its heart he will need to ensure that people at all levels of the income distribution benefit from economic growth. Whilst there may be the need for some law changes and some regulation, fundamentally what is needed is a significant reduction in tax on those with low or medium incomes, as soon as economic circumstances allow. Only then will the squeeze on family income be reduced so that families can themselves decide how to best rebalance their own lives.

I miss my Dad, but I also regret the time lost with him when I was a child and he was working all the hours that God sends. I hope that my grandchildren don’t have the same experience.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.

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10 Responses to “Families need less tax and more time”

  1. Wikiminster says:

    But isn’t Ed more likely to just pile taxes onto poor and middle income families. He believes fairness and social mobility can only be achieved by a large, unreformed and inefficient state.

  2. Mike Killingworth says:

    “He died at home… with eight of his children” … “my eldest three kids” …

    The Watt family obviously doesn’t agree with family planning (I assume they’re Catholics). Perhaps Peter could explain why those of us who have practised it for two generations now should pay for those who don’t?

    It’s because Catholics think they’re right and the rest of us are wrong, isn’t it?

  3. donpaskini says:

    Hi Peter,

    Interesting article.

    If forced to choose, would you prioritise significant tax cuts for low and middle earners, or higher public spending on social care services?

    You might also be interested in this article, which argues that “Relative to other nations, those in which labor is highly organized [have] a fairly egalitarian distribution of individual wages and household incomes, reliable economic security, extensive economic mobility, and generous holiday and vacation time.”

    I don’t think there is particular evidence that personal tax rates are correlated with any of these desirable outcomes.


  4. Rob Marchant says:

    Peter, when I was studying business we did a session on work-life balance, and the very smart professor played us this.

    Worth two minutes of any parent’s time, I’d say.

  5. MattT says:

    A lack of housing, lack of support in caring for the elderly, lack of infrastructural and industrial investment also causes stress in family life, as well as all these cuts you say Labour should not oppose. And, well, they all require state spending and therefore tax to put right. So I don’t think that low taxes are a solution for this problem. What would significantly improve thing? 5p off income tax? Half VAT and half petrol duty? Basic services would have to be scorched to fund that. Stressful for those who rely on them.

    My view is that, as we have found out over the last few decades, a society based on competitive, profit driven values can be a very unpleasant one to live in, however wealthy it is (or appears to be). This leads to the important relationships in people’s lives becoming crowded out by the necessity of working working working for the man. I suppose that line of thought isn’t contrarian enough for Labour Uncut though.

    You have eloquently and movingly written about your father. Well, I’m 24 and over the last few years I’ve watched my parents, who both work in Education and both of whom have a passion for their vocation, sadly become more stressed, and at times more grumpy, and their passion for their work come under more strain. Both are socialists and my father is a member of the Labour Party. However, both are adamant that it was Labour’s drive for competition, and adoption of targets and business values into public services that has caused their working lives to become more difficult. I work in a low level service sector job with few working rights and its no fun either.

    Examples of low tax societies like America show that lift there is more stressful for most people so tax reduction would not help. 30-hour-week sure as hell would though. And more trade union rights. And, you know, refusing to accept that the world of work has has to be about treating people like units of production to be squeezed for every last ounce of labour.

  6. Mike Killingworth says:

    Let me try to strike a more positive note than I did previously.

    I wonder if any of those who think that working for someone who is only interested in making a profit can still be a fulfilling experience and permit a proper work-life balance would care to hold up examples of companies that operate like that?

    I’m not going to hold my breath…

  7. Peter Watt says:

    Mike, you are clearly a rather offensive person. I am not sure that if I wrote what o actually wanted to say it would get through moderation.

  8. paul barker says:

    A thoughtful piece. Can I point out that cutting Income Tax for the lower paid is also Libdem policy & in fact the Coalition has already made a start on this, with more to come.

  9. Ayub Khan says:

    Peter a very moving piece about your Father. I can relate to this as I lost my Dad in March. The way I see it is like this. No one on their death bed ever said that they wish they had spent more time at work, that is why a work life balance is important.

  10. botzarelli says:

    A good and poignant piece, particularly for me as I am expecting that I will have to relocate 200 miles to work during the week as my area of work is now almost exclusively done out of London and the South East but even on a relatively high salary and with a fairly substantial home in Leeds it is difficult to see how we could afford to move the family nearer work.

    I’m not really sure that lowering taxes for low and middle income earners is specifically an Ed Miliband thing – if anything he and Labour are very late to this game. The problem is in defining what is meant by the squeezed middle in income terms rather than in qualitative terms. It is an appealing theme because qualitatively it covers the vast majority of the population but to be a realistic policy base it needs to be defined quantitatively too. The problem is that as soon as it encompasses a significant proportion of people who consider themselves qualitatively part of the squeezed middle it gets squarely into the territory of the group the Exchequer is most reliant upon.

    This sets a political trap for anyone trying to address the problems of the middle. One option is to propose raising taxes on higher paid people – but this has to be done sensitively so as not to depress economic growth or cause a brain drain. There aren’t enough people earning £150k+ to raise enough tax to compensate for big cuts to the tax paid by a couple each on the national average (who themselves on joint income “look” rich in bringing in £50k+ a year). However, the other options are unlikely to be options for Miliband – he can’t propose to cut public spending or welfare more! He also would be foolhardy to propose raising business taxation – even if he believes that cutting business taxes won’t stimulate growth I doubt he could believe that raising them would be anything other than harmful to business in the current conditions. The best thing to pay for a tax giveaway to the middle is an economic boom. You can’t give the giveaway in the expectation of a future boom so it would only be a realistic proposal in circumstances where the present government has been in place when it happened (when mealy-mouthed claims “that it would have been bigger had they followed the Opposition’s plans” would not look particularly credible).

    So, unless and until there is a marked economic improvement it is difficult to see how helping the squeezed middle can be much other than mood music. An alternative might be to provide help to the squeezed middle by changing employment conditions to “enforce” or facilitate getting a work-life balance. Increasing the minimum statutory holiday allowance, mandatory parental leave benefits, enforcing the Working Time Directive rigorously and not allowing opt-outs, banning bonus payments entirely (to prevent there being an incentive to work longer hours), taxing long distance business travel heavily to prevent people from taking jobs far from home, obliging appropriate employers to have a mandatory level of remote working availability (exceptions for retail, manufacturing or services requiring physical presence on site). But, I suspect that such a package would look pretty thin to most people.

    Helping the squeezed middle is an attractive dead end.

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