Analysis: Will the Tories save marriage?

Recognising marriage in the tax system alienates some voters but galvanises Cameron’s core vote. Is it worth it?

By Ian Dunt

Few policies better symbolise the new Conservative project than the married couples’ tax allowance.

This was one of the ways the new-look Tory party would help disadvantaged children, and it suitably reflected a pet theme of David Cameron’s – achieving progressive ends accomplished through Conservative means.

The Tory argument is simple. The current system discourages marriage. According to calculations based on Department of Work and Pensions figures, for instance, a family earning around £35,000 would be £186 a week better off if the parents split up. The Conservatives say this is the worst incentive possible. Children whose parents are in a loving, solid relationship tend to do better.

Opponents point to a different example. Take a wife suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. If she leaves him she would lose money under the Tory plans.

Most child support groups are also against it – some privately, some publicly. The face of British familial relations has changed beyond of all recognition over the last few decades, and single parents, grandparents and other non-traditional arrangements are now of far greater importance to the rearing of children than they ever were before. Many child support groups want policy that reflects the current state of society, not one that tries to rearrange it.

Others objected on the basis that it constitutes an interference by the government in people’s personal lives. As children’s secretary Ed Balls said, it smells like “social engineering”.
Opposition to the policy appeared to make the Conservatives nervous. Cameron seemed to oscillate over the idea just after Christmas. The Tory leader told an interviewer that he “hoped” to introduce the policy, a major watering down of his previous commitment. Later, he clarified his position, but the damage had been done.

Questions as to the affordability of the scheme took on serious weight, especially given the party’s concentration on the budget deficit. Eventually the Tories admitted they could not afford a transferable tax credit. But Iain Duncan Smith, chairman of the Centre for Social Justice, gave Cameron a get out clause, by saying the policy could be implemented for those couples with children as a sort of downpayment for when it could be activated in full.

With all these problems, it might look like Cameron shot himself in the foot with this, one of his earliest policy ideas. That’s not the whole story though.

Cameron has a small problem with the core vote. Most Tories will vote for him because they are desperate for power. But they remain suspicious of his centrist agenda. The married couples’ tax break galvanises that core vote. It’s the kind of thing that makes them campaign, as well as vote. At the same time, it does not alienate the wider, undecided electorate. For Cameron’s purposes it does not need to attract this demographic – it just needs to not turn them off.

It has also had a political effect on Labour. The party has traditionally been nervous about commenting on marriage, merely insisting that couples’ longevity is important, but that the arrangement they live under is none of the government’s business. But Balls told the BBC’s Politics Show recently that “marriage is a really important institution in our society for bringing up children”. It seems a truism, but it is an important indication that Labour believes the policy may have some impact among the electorate.

Cameron will now be hoping the policy doesn’t come up much during the general election campaign. The core vote will remember it, but those who are uncomfortable have mostly forgotten about it, given its absence from the headlines for a few weeks. If something Cameron or a front bencher says brings it back into focus, it will do the party more harm than good.