Joan Bakewell: A £20-a-week tax credit isn't going to save marriage

Society has moved on, and many people prefer to organise their lives in different ways
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Some people like getting married so much they just keep on doing it. The 1940s bandleader Artie Shaw was as famous for his six wives as his music; Elizabeth Taylor matched him for romancing and then wedding her men. Jane Felix-Browne, a Cheshire granny, has recently married for the sixth time, and is now busy getting her new husband, a son of Osama Bin Laden, a visa to enter this country.

There are many reasons to marry, and the prospect of a visa is merely one of them. Others may concern breeding an heir, inheriting property, keeping up family connections. Romance and loving commitment are only part of the picture. At any one time, that picture is changing.

Marriage is probably the key indicator of the sort of society we live in. There is now a clear and fundamental ideological difference between left and right on the matter. Iain Duncan Smith, the author of the vast, 275,000-word report on family breakdown, presents David Cameron and the Conservatives with a vision of marriage as the fundamental social unit that has offered stability, continuity and shared values for generations.

It is a vision Conservatives recognise and applaud. So do we all: it has long been a Western ideal, the stuff of girlish dreams, youthful hopes, enacted in sacramental ceremonies - once conducted, incidentally, by a totally celibate male priesthood - leading to enduring and fulfilling companionship, with children as a crowning blessing. Who wouldn't subscribe to such an ideal? Such notions have inspired dreamers, utopians, poets and writers down the ages.

But artists have also chronicled what goes wrong, all the way from Euripides' Medea via Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Nonetheless, marriage with all its failings has survived as the glue holding society together. Religions have played a big part in its continuing power, elevating it to a sacrament and providing suitably impressive phraseology. "Til death do us part" means what it says.

Ironically, it gave the title to television's most quarrelsome and dysfunctional marriage. As we move ever more towards a secular society with weddings conducted not just in civic offices but on boats, on beaches, in the air, under water, the enterprise begins to look a little devalued.

"How, then, can we revive that ideal?" is the Tory approach. How to make unhappy and unfaithful couples stick together, persuade the two million couples who prefer to live together that they are wrong? Good marriages are a joy to see: couples who allow for each other's weaknesses, forgive transgressions and value each other as individuals leave the rest of us gasping in admiration. The Tories would like to re-create in the hearts of the independent, the sceptical, the abandoned, the brutalised, the committed loyalty between man and woman that we see in the best marriages around us. They will certainly have their work cut out: and £20- a-week tax benefit isn't going to make the difference.

The Labour critique of this report and its 190 recommendations claims a greater sense of reality. Society has moved on, and many people now prefer to organise their personal lives in different ways. Not only those who co-habit, but those living apart together. There are three million such couples. Then there are the gay couples with their own or adopted children. They may refer to their civil partnerships as marriage, but they don't have that status in law. To acknowledge the fact that society is now more complex in its structures is where Labour starts. They seek to improve what already exists rather than restore arrangements that for one reason or another have already been found wanting.

There's common agreement that what matters is the upbringing of children. Duncan Smith makes it clear that his main objective is to avoid family breakdown so that crime and its attendant miseries can be substantially reduced. The upbringing of children is the most important commitment one generation makes to another. The obligations should apply right across the community. We should all be involved, whether we are single parents or couples, gay partnerships or childless. Everyone is in on this task, and to pick and chose between adults because of how they organise their own lives is to miss the point. We must all be brought into the equation: siblings, grandparents, neighbours, carers, all the different components of any community have their parts to play.

Once you establish that, then it's clear that anyone giving full- time care to a child - their own or others' - deserves to be paid accordingly. It is a job, defined as such, and deserving of reward from the society's pot. All should be paid, and at the same rate for that particular task. The wife of the well-off solicitor who chooses to stay at home should get the same as the single teenager for that particular job.

Being married shouldn't come into it. Those in need will also qualify for the whole raft of benefits. But the thing women have in common - being mothers - should be equated across the board. How nice it would be if they also met up in the same maternity ward, the same child clinic, the same playgroups. Women of all classes and incomes have loads in common when weighing babies and talking nappies. It is this bond of motherhood that policies should seek to encourage. At last we have an issue with clear blue water between the parties. It's time we all joined the debate.