Labour should focus on family values, says Tristram Hunt

Exclusive: Senior member of the Shadow Cabinet says party needs to 'shed its leftist qualms'

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Labour must recognise the importance of family values to take on the Conservatives over social mobility, a senior member of the Shadow Cabinet has said.

Tristram Hunt argued the party needed to “shed its leftist qualms” about appearing patronising when tackling dysfunctional families – saying Labour could no longer justify staying silent on a “moral” issue.

It marks a significant shift for Ed Miliband’s party as it attempts to fight David Cameron on family breakdown, usually one of the Tories’ favourite policy areas, in the final months before next year’s general election.

Speaking to The Independent, the shadow Education Secretary said Labour needed to get over its “fear of the ‘F’ word”. “We’re talking to Labour colleagues about shedding any vestige of fear about talking about the importance and significance of the family, and how important stable relationships and stable parenting environments are for children’s attainment. We shouldn’t let the right and the Conservatives have that,” he said.

Criticising the policies of the last Labour government, Mr Hunt said that the party had previously been too preoccupied with tax credits and not given enough thought to tackling social problems in families. “We’ve seen so much more academic evidence since [Labour was last in power] that we now have to reflect upon… Too much of the Labour project was closely associated just with fiscal transfers rather than stressing the importance of bonds and attachments and relationships and the broader cultural importance and value. That wasn’t often stressed as much as it could have been.”

He added: “These families are troubled and it’s multiple levels of trouble and it would not be solved by more tax credits. We don’t have the money for that and we also know the limitations of that project.”

Mr Hunt confirmed a Labour government would seek to keep the Troubled Families Programme. The scheme, led by Government adviser Louise Casey, was launched in 2011 by David Cameron to intervene with families that have multiple problems – such as high levels of truancy, youth crime, antisocial behaviour and worklessness.

Figures released last week suggest the Government has reached its target of helping 120,000 troubled families nine months earlier than planned.

Mr Hunt said: “One of the great successes of Louise Casey’s Troubled Families stuff is strong intervention on family... They have a really tough, respectful, interventionist approach to it. It’s more unfamiliar territory which makes it more important to stress it and carve it out because we know that’s where the academic evidence takes us.”

Saying the party needed to pursue a strategy of “stressing family structure and also early attachment”, he added: “There has been a fear of the ‘f’ word and I think the balance is to say that families do take different forms and it’s really, really important that we focus on quality of relationships and what breakdown means as barriers for children succeeding.

“It is important from the position of shadow Secretary of State to stress just how significant nurture, attachment, parenting and support for the family as a vital component of social mobility and educational attainment is going to be for the next Labour government and shedding any leftist qualms about how significant and valuable the family is,” Mr Hunt said.

It appears the party faces a tough challenge. Mr Hunt spoke on the subject of families to senior social workers and council leaders at the National Children and Adults Services Conference in Manchester last week.

He was on a double bill with shadow Health Minister Andy Burnham, whose speech about his love of the NHS gained enthusiastic applause. In contrast, Mr Hunt’s lecture on family breakdown and “big reform without big spending” was received in stony silence.

In his speech, Mr Hunt said the case for intervention in broken families was a “moral crusade” that had been missed by the previous Labour government. “The Labour Party’s strategy for eradicating child poverty missed an important component… Sometimes, too much of the great work the last Labour government accomplished on child poverty relied too heavily on turning tax receipts into tax credits. And over the last few years this vulnerability has been emphatically exposed,” he said.