The news that Labour in the UK is about to perform what can only be described as an incredible U-turn with regard to family policy is good news for people who believe in an evidence-based approach to the family. Not because Labour are likely to implement any marriage-friendly policies in practice, but because it shows that backing marriage is not only sensible policy, but good politics.
Labour have been consistently dismissive of the value of marriage as opposed to any other kind of family. Ministers such as Harriet Harman and especially Alan Johnson, tipped by many as a future leader of the Party, have queued up to take pot-shots at the Tories for making marriage the centrepiece of their social policy.
Instead of accepting what the evidence clearly shows – that being raised by a married mother and father tends to produce the best outcomes for children – such Ministers trotted out the old canard that having a loving parent, or parents, is all the matters.
But now Labour claim they have seen the light. Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, who is thought to be part of Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s inner circle, is admitting that Labour’s policy for the past decade had been a mistake.
The Green Paper being drafted by his department will apparently suggest more resources for marriage counselling services such as Relate and to propose a change in culture in public services away from “mother and baby” to “mother, father and baby”. Mr Balls is believed to be particularly keen to find ways to prevent partnerships from collapsing during the weeks after a baby is born.
Pardon my cynicism, but it is hard to believe that a party which was so disdainful of the particular merits of having a mother and a father for so long has now undergone a Damascene conversion on the subject.
But this is what makes this story so positive, and so potentially encouraging from an Irish standpoint. Labour’s very reluctance, over 12 years, to support marriage, or even the family of mother, father and child, means that this change of tack was forced on them by the popularity of the Conservative’s pro-marriage stance.
The Tories have consistently placed marriage at the centre of their election strategy, insisting that policy should reflect evidence. Labour clearly feel they have lost the argument in the public mind.
The implications for Irish politics should be obvious, if our elected representatives had any imagination. If pro-marriage policy can be a politically winning strategy in a highly secular country like Britain, how much more successful could it be here, where marriage is still far more robust?