Joan Smith: Tories are romantic about marriage – and wrong

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The Independent Online

The Tories are a bunch of hopeless romantics. They want us to get married and stay married, a message that might seem a little ill-timed as we emerge from ten days in close proximity to our loved ones.

Both main parties want more support for fathers, which is no bad thing, but the headline-grabbing bit of the Tories' agenda is tax advantages for married couples. Labour can't go down that route, but ministers have started saying they need to refocus policy on families rather than single mothers and children.

I wouldn't mind this if the debate had more connection with reality. What the Conservatives denounce as Britain's "broken society" applies to a minority of the population, and it's actually a series of interconnected problems which won't be solved by persuading everyone to get hitched.

First and foremost is the fact that too many teenage girls get pregnant, exposing themselves to a life of emotional instability and serial relationships. I don't want these girls to get married; I'd like them to be freed from the pressure to have sex too young, which can be achieved through compulsory sex education in schools. That's what the Government is proposing for older teenagers, acknowledging that many parents aren't equipped to do it, but it's prompted hysterical opposition from "pro-family" and religious pressure groups.

The Tories have bolted themselves to a lost cause – keeping sex within marriage – when most people no longer live like that. David Willetts, who speaks on family policy for the Conservatives, is worried that marriage is becoming the preserve of the educated middle class; the number of marriages has reached a historic low of 270,000 compared with almost half a million in 1972. But what that statistic means is another matter altogether.

The Tories are fond of quoting figures which suggest that married parents are more likely to stay together, but that may just say something about the kind of people who get married. Maybe they're more conventional or more affluent, but the notion of privileging them through the tax system is morally indefensible. If marriage is such a great institution, why do couples need to be bribed to enter it? Should those who leave a violent marriage really lose money? When the Home Office suggests that one woman in four will be a victim of domestic violence, this is not merely a theoretical question.

When politicians think about the family they mix up two issues: adult relationships and bringing up children. I'm keen on stable environments for adults and children but most of us are going to have two or three significant relationships in our longer lifetimes. In that sense, lifelong marriage is way past its sell-by date, creating unrealistic expectations which leave couples unprepared when they decide to split. What they need isn't tax breaks to stay married; it's practical advice on how to remain co-parents when the intimate and sexual aspects of their relationship are over.

Labour should have more to offer on this than the Conservatives, given that several members of the present Cabinet have chosen unconventional domestic arrangements.

Instead of allowing the Tories to make the running on family policy, ministers should build on one of the outstanding successes of Labour's period in office by extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. It's a reform that would be simple, progressive and popular – and which would expose the Tories' pointless nostalgia for the family of the 1950s.

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