Sir Keir Starmer’s sincerity when he talks about family is palpable. On Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last year, as in a speech given on Monday, he appeared most animated when speaking of his feelings towards his parents, wife and children. The bonds between generations, and couples, clearly mean a great deal to him, as they do to most people. In 2021 our society is more honest than it used to be about the degree to which such relationships can and do go wrong. But our ties to the people we share our lives with remain, for most of us, an enormously important aspect of who we are.

Policies geared towards families have always been part of social democratic politics. The Child Poverty Action Group, one of the charities supported by the 2020 Guardian and Observer appeal, helped persuade Harold Wilson’s Labour government to introduce a new child benefit, paid to mothers, in the 1970s. Under New Labour, the Sure Start programme channelled funding at under-fives as part of a successful effort to reduce child poverty. More recently, the Labour peer Alf Dubs led a campaign to give child refugees the right to be united with family members.

But Sir Keir is not using “family” as shorthand for children, as his emphasis on the support his mother received from the NHS made clear. More funding for health, and particularly the social care that many older people rely on, can also be framed in family-friendly terms. When people suffer from financial and other hardships, so do their relationships.

When he referred to the “party of the family” at the weekend, Labour’s leader could have been clearer that he didn’t only mean traditional, nuclear families but all sorts of other families, including LGBTQ+ ones. It is not surprising that while many people, especially those with caring responsibilities, will broadly welcome the prospect of a government that is more family‑oriented, others are suspicious. Ever since the 1930s, family values have had strong associations with right and far-right politics. Margaret Thatcher’s famous assertion that there was “no such thing as society”, just individuals and families, underpinned a political philosophy committed to dismantling the public realm. In the midst of austerity, George Osborne brought in a married couples tax break.

With radical conservative movements now thriving across Europe, it is not enough for Labour to seek to reclaim the term without fleshing out what it means in policy terms. A progressive politics that centres the family is certainly possible, and could be desirable, if this entails a wider recognition of the importance of relationships in all our lives. The repeated failures over the past decade with regard to social care can be understood in part as a denial of dependency and the human need to be looked after.

The burdens placed on families by such poor policymaking are heavy, and have only been added to by the pandemic. After a decade of austerity, the social infrastructure of nurseries, youth clubs and all the other institutions that provide the support structure around family life was already decrepit. When this emergency is over, Labour must make the case for its reinvigoration. Family must be more than a soundbite, or a chapter in the Labour leader’s biography.

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