Labour must reach out to a generation of families who struggle to work and bring up children, with an offer of a free, Scandinavian-style system of universal childcare, Yvette Cooper has said.
Making her pitch to become Labour’s first female permanent leader, Ms Cooper said that her party could only win back power if it revolutionised the way Britain supports families. She called for Labour to embrace an offer of 30 hours’ free childcare for all children over the age of two until they go to school.
For younger children she said there should be a new system of tax credits to cover the period after a mother finishes maternity leave which would allow her to choose whether to go back to work part-time or spend more time with her baby.
Writing in The Independent Ms Cooper said that, for too long, Labour had seen “things like childcare or family policy” as “soft optional extras” rather than the “fundamental building blocks of a strong modern economy and of strong communities”.
She said that her leadership campaign would be centred on a pledge to change that approach – providing support for families from birth to adulthood. “We should campaign for universal childcare – as other countries including Scandinavia have,” she said.
“That means breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, holiday clubs, and free nursery places and childcare available full-time not just for three- and four-year-olds but two-year-olds too.
“Words aren’t enough. The truth is that the Tories have hit families hard in the past five years.
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1/7 Andy Burnham
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2/7 Mary Creagh
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3/7 Liz Kendall
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4/7 Yvette Cooper
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5/7 Tristram Hunt
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6/7 Dan Jarvis
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7/7 Chuka Umunna
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“Yet Labour – for all our strong record in government on supporting families – didn’t convince enough of them to vote for us in May.”
Ms Cooper’s intervention comes as the Conservatives prepare to use Wednesday's Queen’s Speech to announce legislation that would extend free childcare from 15 hours a week to 30 hours a week for three- and four-year-olds.
The measure was in the Conservative manifesto and David Cameron sees it as a key policy to address the perception that his party does not care enough about low to middle-income families who struggled during the recession.
But Ms Cooper dismissed the move, suggesting that the Conservatives had failed to address financial hardship facing families during its previous five years in power.
Crucially, Ms Cooper’s proposals would cover two-year-olds, who are currently not covered by the Conservative proposals.
“The Tories don’t have the policy answers,” she said.
“They have never taken seriously the pressures families face. Tax credits and child benefit were cut by billions and George Osborne has them in his sights again.
“Over 600 of the Surestart centres I worked to get opened as a minister have been closed. Labour’s Department for Children, Schools and Families has been stripped down to Education. And David Cameron’s conversion to childcare policies is late and unfunded.”
Ms Cooper is due formally to launch her leadership bid with a speech later this week. She will attempt to come through the middle against Andy Burnham – who has support from much of the union movement – and Liz Kendall, who is positioning herself as the Blairite modernising candidate.
Ms Cooper wants to portray herself as a centrist candidate with the experience to turn Labour’s fortunes around.
Aides said that Ms Cooper found the lack of support for families where both parents worked was a key issue on the doorstep during the election campaign.
But in her article Ms Cooper said Labour “should never make the mistake of thinking family policy is just about childcare”.
“Parents and children want to spend more time together. Sons and daughters are worried about elderly relatives. Support for families shouldn’t end when children start school.
“And when family relationships go wrong much more help is needed.”
Meanwhile, Lord Prescott has declared that contenders vying to become the next leader of the Labour Party are guilty of throwing about “meaningless” expressions.
The former Labour Deputy Prime Minister has hit out at the candidates for repeatedly stating that the party must appeal to voters with “aspiration”. “What the hell does that mean, ‘aspiration’?” asked Lord Prescott on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on Monday morning.