An interesting way to take the political temperature of the nation is to look at the popular Mumsnet topic thread “Am I being unreasonable?” In there, among the hilarious anecdotes of world championship level competitive parenting and distressing tales of marriages slowly dissolving, you’ll also find some discussion on the news and talking points of day.
So this morning, alongside a thread on Ian Brady’s death (“Of course he wasn't going to announce where the boy was buried”), there also appears another on Labour’s £80,000 tax threshold proposal. No wonder, as it taps into a broader debate – one that you’ll also see endlessly played out on all similar forums and across social media – about what constitutes a high rate of pay.
One user asks how it’s fair that two earners each on a salary of £75,000 could be able to pay so much less tax under Jeremy Corbyn's policy than one earner supporting the same household (say, two parents and two children) on a single salary of £150,000. This is a recurring theme: the cost, as it’s perceived, of choosing for one parent to stay at home. But there are also more than enough people reflecting the other point of view, the one Labour is hoping to make gains from channelling: “For f***s sake, someone has to pay more tax…. Slightly less trips to Waitrose innit.”
What doesn’t appear in these threads, however – and, frankly, never will – is a debate about water rates and the potential benefits of the nationalisation of the water industry. Neither, despite the widespread anger at failing services such as Southern Rail, is the rail industry turning up as a hot topic. Nobody is sharing their wistful memories of the good old days of British Rail, and neither is anyone waxing lyrical about the significant benefits of a European system of using nationalised industries to make commercial returns overseas. This just isn’t the stuff of idle coffee morning chitchat.
The problem for Labour is that this single policy – higher taxes for higher earners, with a raid on the fattest of fat cats earning £500,000 or more – is their only chance of a hit in ordinary conversation. One hit does not an election manifesto make. More importantly, Labour’s justified criticism of the Tory raid on policies protecting workers’ rights is falling on deaf ears too.
Take the matter of time off work to care for a relative. First publicised on Sunday night, Theresa May used this flagship idea to float the suggestion that she is now the guardian of the rights of the British worker after Brexit. She won’t just protect employees’ existing rights (to sick pay and maternity leave, for example): she’ll go even further and extend them.
This is very clever politics. The policies don’t really stack up, as Labour has attempted to expose, but that doesn’t matter. They sound right, and they resonate.
Another regular topic of conversation on Mumsnet concerns the challenges faced by those in the growing demographic of older parents who are doubling up their care responsibilities, looking after small children in their forties and even fifties while also taking on the burden of supporting their increasingly frail ageing parents. How they balance those responsibilities is absolutely a “temperature of the nation” question. So May was right to acknowledge that.
The criticisms that followed, from Labour as well as from journalists and policy analysts, were sensible.
How many people can really afford to take two months, let alone a year, away from work unpaid to take on more unpaid caring responsibilities? This could be a foil, an excuse to cut investment in professional social care.
And, yes, the negative impact on women’s earning abilities could be significant, since culturally we have still failed to move far from the default position of adult women acting as the primary familial caregiver to both young and old alike.
The problem is this: whether they can afford it or not, a great many people are already taking a couple of months of unpaid leave, perhaps more, in a crisis situation to look after their families and they are paying a price to do it. Many are no doubt forced to resign their jobs in order to do it. To them, likely a larger constituency than those who would refuse to offer their family care on the grounds of cost, this sounds like a huge improvement in their life chances. May’s Conservatives have an ear for the concerns of the majority, and it’s more than evident in this single policy.
To be realistic (some may say cynical), this is an election pledge that is very hard to deliver on, but it’s also a low risk strategy – even if it fails spectacularly. That’s because, while Theresa May can pass a law that means every employee has the right to take 52 weeks off for care, she and her party will not be involved directly in implementation of it; that will be up to employers.
Women are, remember, entitled to up to 52 weeks away for maternity leave by law and to return to a role at the same salary and same level of seniority, yet a great many of them find themselves facing maternity discrimination, demoted at their return or spuriously made “redundant” while they are away. The website Pregnant Then Screwed is packed with stories just like these.
How many will face the same fate if they ask for care leave? How many will feel unable to even make that request for fear that their employer will pass them over for future promotion, seeing them as a risk with too many outside responsibilities to be committed to their role?
Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto contains a host of practical ideas to improve the economic and social changes of the majority of Britons. But that doesn’t matter. He has a tin ear to the real concerns of the British electorate, while May has channelled their very real concerns into a set of election-winning policies with little risk of reprisal.
Meanwhile, as Corbyn sets out the rest of his election agenda, the women of Mumsnet have turned their attention to the other big topic of the day: “Am I being unreasonable to not wash my cat?”
With three weeks still to go, the contest is already over.Reuse content