by Zoe Smith
“That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for all of us”
Gordon Brown on his proposal to house single mothers in state-run supervised homes
September was an exceptionally rough month for many mothers. They took a further beating at the hands of the state with the Labour Party’s stultified attempts to kick into motion its lumbering electoral machine, in the mad rush to outdo the Conservative Party’s social conservatism. During his mid September speech to the TUC on spending cuts the Prime Minister revealed that New Labour had decided to drop its manifesto pledge to increase paid maternity leave for mothers to one year. In a qualification to this decision Gordon Brown added that this would be counter-balanced by granting fathers the right to take three months of paid paternity leave during the second six months of their child’s life. This was on the condition that the mother returned to work. Following this announcement Brown proceeded to make a pronounced and very hostile attack on teenage mothers during his keynote speech at the Labour Party conference. The scale and seriousness of this attack can be seen as a new departure in the state’s attempt to control female reproduction, and to penalise and control some of society’s most vulnerable women.
In a lengthy and wide-ranging description of the chaos being wreaked on British society by teenage mothers, Brown announced that “from now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes”. He added that the purpose of “these shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly”. Brown described himself as addressing a problem which for “too long has gone unspoken, the number of children having children”. (Perhaps the Prime Minister has never perused the pages of recent Tory-convert Sun newspaper, nor indeed the Daily Mail, Evening Standard, and Daily Telegraph publications, which regularly adorn their pages with stories of these disastrous mothers). Brown described his ‘family intervention projects’ as a ‘tough love’ policy measure designed to address “tough social questions”. He then proceeded to describe these single parents as a key example of those nefarious members of society “who will talk about their rights, but never accept their responsibilities”. For Brown the public were not really angry with the bankers and politicians “who have lost the people’s trust”. No, he said, the truth was that the “decent hard working majority feel the odds are stacked in favor of a minority” those “who let their kids run riot” and “play by different rules or no rules at all”. Having identified the proper source of society’s breakdown and general disorder, Brown went onto reassure us that he was “not prepared to accept” this state of affairs “as simply a part of life”. His remedy of state homes for teenage mothers would “stop anti-social behaviour, slash welfare dependency and cut crime” and provide a “no nonsense approach with help for those who want to change and proper penalties for those who don’t or won’t”.
The extent to which this new social policy is more than a vague election-season sound bite is unclear. However, whether an impending active policy or not, Brown’s protracted sermonising on the scourge of teenage pregnancy and his state interventions to reform these women is astonishing for its reactionary rhetoric and social conservatism. When using the term ‘reactionary’ in the context of New Labour one usually makes Thatcherite comparisons. The context in which Brown’s proposals for remedying these problem women and the catastrophic affect he describes them having on British society, can properly be located however in the sixteenth century. The origins of the system of workhouses governed by the principles of the Poor Law originated in the Elizabethan era. There followed a few centuries development of penal measures designed to punish poverty by instituting a regime of ‘less eligibility’ and harsh work in penal institutions as a condition of subsistence aid. How this history of Poor Law legislation dealt with young single and homeless mothers is a complicated story. However it is useful to briefly recount this history in order for us to understand the extent to which Brown’s policy of ‘family interventions’ and state homes represents something truly retrograde.
The placement of single women expecting children in reformatories and penitentiaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was heavily indebted to the work of the Church. The purpose of these ‘homes’ was to punish sin, reform, and rehabilitate ‘fallen women’. Their descendants – the ‘mother and baby homes’ of the post-1945 period – continued to be a last resort for women turned out by their families and unlikely to acquire social housing, well into the 1960s. Young women were sent to these homes during their pregnancy and then on the birth of the child (who was usually adopted) they were sent back to their families. These institutions began to fade out when women were given access to Council Housing under the Homeless Persons Act of 1977. Here for the first time Local Councils, which had previously rejected the applications of single mothers for housing, were told to give priority to a demographically growing number of homeless young mothers. This change of policy under the Labour government of Callaghan represented a less penal attitude towards young single mothers. This began to change again with increased social alarm and opprobrium for the issue of teenage pregnancy, which emerged in the eighties and with increasing vituperation in the nineties.
Brown is clearly drawing on the most draconian traditions of British social policy deriving his inspiration from the workhouses, and the penal and moral reformatories previously run by the Church. This history is being drawn upon to inform his party’s vision of a new Modern Britain. The Labour party’s self-styled definition of its purpose in politics is to provide “fairness: fair rules, fair chances and a fair say for everyone”. The New Labour government’s general approach to questions of women and social and economic policy has undoudtely been influenced by the goals of a very weak but nonetheless ‘liberal’ feminism, which espouses a vision of a fairer society in which women are empowered by the state to labour under capitalism on ‘equal’ terms with male workers. This of course represents the culmination of the policies of Workfare-style welfare which were readily adopted by the Blair government and have continued under Brown to uphold an emphasis on the absolute priority of ensuring women return to work and labour in the economy, in order to negate any possible welfare dependence.
What is clear in Brown’s attack upon mothers is that for the state human reproduction is only to be permitted if it is combined with a proper execution of wage labour in the market. The more one reads Brown and the Labour Party’s rhetoric concerning the outrage that teenage mothers pose to society, the more obvious it is that the reason these women are the subject of such contempt, is that they represent a deviation from the norm of economic production, which women are now more than ever expected to uphold. Any deviation from the standard trajectory of the young in society from education into the job market represents a betrayal of their duty to work under capitalism. For New Labour such a betrayal of vision and responsibility can only be rectified by their and their baby’s institutionalisation in state homes.