Harriet Harman Is Following the Old Tory Line in Using the Poorest Women as a Soft Target, except She Dresses It Up as a Crusade for Empowerment

By Riddell, Mary | New Statesman (1996), December 5, 1997 | Go to article overview

Harriet Harman Is Following the Old Tory Line in Using the Poorest Women as a Soft Target, except She Dresses It Up as a Crusade for Empowerment


Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)


Whenever I think of lone parents, I remember Angie from down the road. Pregnant at 15, mother of three by 20. The fathers of her children never stuck around. No maintenance, but she coped. Nice council maisonette, kids dressed in new season Mothercare. Or Gap when times were good.

They usually were, what with welfare, the occasional affluent live-in boyfriend and barmaiding on the black economy while her mum helped at home. Never oppressed and rarely broke, Angie was streetwise and a survivor.

I think of her as an exception. Harriet Harman, by contrast, appears to view the bulk of Britain's 1.4 million lone parents as Angie clones. One could almost imagine a meeting. "A new claimant?" Harriet is saying to Angie. "That will be up to [pounds]11 a week off the standard benefit. However, once your kids are five, you can cut yourself into my New Deal.

"If you can find a job, and a staggering nine per cent of unemployed single mothers do, you may be far better off. Not to mention fulfilled. Each night your children can stay at school until you make it back, on the bus and via Tesco, to pick them up and (chores and supper preparation permitting) enjoy some quality time."

The subtext would have been plain to Angie. No more cushy life on benefit. To most single mothers, struggling to survive on a Giro, the Harman vision of have-it-all lone parents, joyfully self-sufficient, is bizarre. Where exactly in the inner cities are they to find French or Swedish-style childcare? Or the subsidised nurseries of Wisconsin, where compulsion to work is at least matched by practical help? How are they to afford even the unlovely alternative: a registered childminder in a dank flat? It is blindingly obvious that poorer mothers cannot, and should not, work unless their children are safe and stimulated.

Yet the only concession is the [pounds]300 million provided by Gordon Brown for after-school clubs - a partial solution for older children, though I doubt many of us would approve of eight hours in a classroom for five year olds. But what happens when a child is sick, or during school holidays? …

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