Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Put childcare at heart of Labour’s agenda

Britain faces a major fiscal sustainability challenge over the coming years, exacerbated by the chancellor’s failure to secure growth and get unemployment down. This means all political parties will be faced by the reality of significant fiscal constraint. However, one way they will signal their differences is in the choices they make about how to allocate scarce resources. In this context, the centre-left should prioritise spending which helps families with the cost of living and boosts jobs and growth in the long term. And it is hard to think of something that meets these criteria more directly than high quality, affordable childcare and early years services.

First, parents with young children pay on average of £100 a week for childcare, a huge pressure on household budgets for all but the most affluent families. With wages flat and support with childcare costs through tax credits reducing, this squeeze is set to get worse. For many, the high cost of childcare prevents parents, often mothers, returning to employment. Research for the Department for Work and Pensions found that almost six in 10 mothers with young children who hadn’t gone back to work cited a lack of childcare or flexible working as the reasons (with just under a quarter saying it was a positive choice).

This links to the second argument. The rate of maternal employment in this country lags significantly behind those of countries like Sweden, Denmark and Netherlands that have more comprehensive childcare services. The most recent OECD data, prior to the full impact of the Great Recession, found that while 75 per cent of British women work, this drops to 61 per cent among mothers with children under 15. In Denmark, the difference between the rate of female and maternal employment is much lower: 79 per cent compared to 77 per cent. In Iceland, a higher proportion of mothers are in work than women overall.

A higher employment rate is an absolutely essential foundation of long-term fiscal sustainability and the only way we will be able to afford a strong welfare state and good public services in the years ahead. Combined with a return to sustained growth, moving towards a system of universal childcare would make a significant contribution to that effort, while also helping with the cost of living. As parental employment rose, such an investment would begin to pay for itself, through higher income tax and national insurance contributions. However it would also require spending to be reprioritised from other areas – starting with winter fuel allowances and free TV licences going to better off pensioners.

There is a very strong economic case for putting universal childcare at the centre of Labour’s political agenda – and sacrificing lower priority spending to make progress possible. However, high-quality childcare, alongside good parenting, can also make a major contribution to equalising life chances and ensuring children start school ready to learn. By providing institutions where families meet each other and spend time together it also strengthens local relationships. And it can also improve gender equality, especially if combined with more equal parental leave entitlements and the chance to work flexible hours.

For all these reasons, progress towards universal childcare – including the tough spending decisions that will be necessary – should be near the top of any future centre-left agenda.


Graeme Cooke is associate director for family, community and work at ippr, which has just published Making the case for universal childcare


Photo: Katy Lundy

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Graeme Cooke

is research director at IPPR


  • Exactly so ~ when I put together the Socio-Economic Childcare Circle in 1996 which we used to demonstrate the worth of government investment in childcare provision ….ie. investment in childcare creates jobs and training places, supports childrens’ learning and parents into/continuing work which effects micro-conomic improvement ~ thence reducing locality dysfunction and enabling regeneration and local economic growth ~ thence enabling a macro-benefit from wider economic growth and increased income from taxes enabling further investment in the economy, with an overall projected cost benefit of £7 gained for every £1.00 invested ( later to be proven as an £8 win), we were over the moon when in 1997 this became a key policy of the Blair government, supported by a raft of measures by Gordon Brown at the Treasury, which are now being dismantled in typically ignorant and blinkered fashion by the Coalition.

    This is a policy area which needs to be at the root and branch of any future Labour policy ~ likewise the reversal of the dismantling of Childrens’ Centres which have proved to be such a positive aspect of our previous policies.

    In the meantime I hope the Cabinet are visited by the ghost of Christmas Past in the shape of the late wonderful Prof Norman Glass berating them for their Scrooge-like treachery towards the children of Christmas present.

  • why do you say that? Excellent childcare provision cannot possibly be quantified as ‘rubbish’. Firstly the work and outcomes are evidenced based. Secondly the findings are generic to all forms of this type of provision on a worldwide basis. Labour policies should be based on such positive findings – to do otherwise would be quite simply foolish in the extreme.

  • is it just me or WHY WHY WHY have 50,000 women in this country had flippin breast implants in the first place !

  • our dear Bish makes a great statement today, a little simplistic but well meant and generalised of course,as the issues of social situation involved are complex .He mentions community turning towards the young ,good idea but this is where the major problem of urban planning ( yeah yeah,what urban planning !) lets us all down so badly. That bloody Shard is supposed to be a monument rising to heaven (gimme a break) well the Mozart estate here in North Westminster is still a ghetto leading straight to hell . Developers still rule ,we are not safe,community is not safe, whilst developers who’s priority is to turn a buck for shareholders and countries even, keen to buy up London, are allowed to take priority over our environment . Councils must represent all people not only chase profits,even in these times our richest boroughs do have leeway here. I’m afraid the police and Councils will have a cynical and probably more realistic view of disaffected youth than the Archbishop .The Mozart estate is a ghetto and there are many more , better urban planing can help to alleviate this.
    Renzo Piano,we are not your toybox! the PR spin says that the Shard is ‘generous’ and does not ‘arrogantly touch the ground’ that it is for 7000 people to work in and enjoy and hundreds and thousands of people to visit,well remember GPO Tower ? I I expect ‘security ‘ considerations will prevent many visitors ! That it ‘disappears into the air like a 16c.pinnacle or the mast of a tall ship ‘ (he has also said it reflects the church spires of London I understand – cheek !) Neurotics often accuse others of their own faults, a sort of deflection technique,well I think this Shard Piano PR does exactly that because IT is ungenerous,arrogant,exclusive,over visible,greedy and dangerous ,(oh and NOTHING like a church).

  • oh eerwego,first day of the year and Grant Schnapps can’t give it a rest ” your class is more criminal than my class” bah blah blah,oh yeah ALL those people in council houses on “six figure salaries” sub-letting should be put in prison, Tories needs to “look after those council houses” ( HOW CAN HE HAVE THE CHEEK TO SAY THAT ) .He makes it sound as fanciful as Pirates of the Caribbean somehow,but yes we’ re all at sea! specially him !

  • i feel that the government have a responsibilty to provide quality low cost childcare, parents should be able to go to work if they wish and the cost of childcare should not be a factor in making this decision.

  • I think that childcare should be provided for single parents that really want to go back to work as well as follow further education.

  • I think Is government responsability to help families with the child care cost because this helps mother to go back to work

  • I feel the government should participate in providing for childcare. I feel its their responsiblity to help familys who need the help.

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