When news broke on the eve of the budget that the Tories were going to announce a massive expansion of free childcare, I literally spilled the milk that I was carefully divvying up into baby bottles. That mistake would cost me dearly because the main job of a parent, I have learned, is to heat things up in order to cool them down (food, baths, enthusiasm, etc).
It soon became apparent that this was the chancellor’s job, too.
Every kid in England will be offered 30 hours of free childcare from the end of parental leave until school age. So far, so so good. Except it won’t be for every child, but mostly the ones who haven’t yet been conceived or, at least, won’t require a nursery place until after the general election.
It won’t include my kids either, because our second child turned out to be two children – twins. Oddly, we didn’t have £35,000 to spare each year, so my partner now looks after them full-time. Her “economic inactivity” means we won’t be eligible for free childcare because both parents have to be in work to benefit.
But here’s the real kicker for your counting app: the government will pay a rate for childcare places that doesn’t cover the actual cost, which could drive providers out of business, so it’s not really clear why or how anyone would deliver them. Mega lols.
All of this puts Labour in a rather unfortunate position. Not for the first time, the Tories have stolen an idea that they were hoping to make into a wedge issue. In truth, they actually stole the idea from the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), as Labour did, too, but the big difference is that we don’t care – in fact, we actively encourage it. At our first election outing, we sent a copy of our manifesto to all the old parties wrapped in a ribbon with a note that read “please steal me”. Among the pages of transformative policy ideas was one that stood out: universal free childcare.
I don’t want to victim-blame but I have little sympathy for Labour when it comes to this particular theft. Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s education spokesperson, has been given endless column inches to talk up her party’s flagship childcare policy, without ever having to say what it actually is. If you are going to trade in empty promises, there’s always a chance that your opposition will, too.
And yes, I do understand how election campaigns work, having run several (for Labour and WEP), and that you don’t reveal all your best ideas until one has actually been called. But that’s not why Labour is holding back on this and very many other important issues. It has fallen into the trap of being so focused on winning the election that it is in danger of forgetting the point of doing so. You don’t win elections by trying not to offend anyone.
The pollster politics that is dominating Labour HQ is a road to only-so-far. It’s the same logic that leads you to believe that manifestos have to be carefully costed spreadsheets, stress-tested over and over in focus groups, rather than a vision for the world we want to live in. Labour is so afraid of criticism about magic money trees when it sets out spending plans, that it is parroting the made-up economics of having to “balance the books” by simply taking a few more public services out of our shopping basket. As if the Treasury were an Amazon account.
The most frustrating thing about all this is that childcare is one of the best counter-examples we have to the neoliberal economics destroying our country: the more you spend on early-years education, the greater the returns for everyone. Modelling from the Women’s Budget Group shows that if you offer 30 hours to all kids from the age of six months and pay early-years workers a real living wage, the Treasury would recoup between 75% and 79% of costs because more parents would be able to work and pay taxes, and fewer would claim out-of-work benefits. The policy very nearly pays for itself.
Instead of proudly shouting this from the rooftops, Labour is now stuck with the very situation it was trying to avoid. It has to convince voters not just that childcare is worth voting for, but that it is worth properly investing in – which is exactly what they should have done in the first place.
Conventional wisdom would have us believe that there is no use crying over spilt milk. But unless Labour comes out swinging for the things that really matter, such as this, we all soon will be.