Hard-pressed parents may swing the election
Even families who were doing quite well are struggling with higher costs and tax
This week, I return to Parliament from maternity leave. For six months, I have been out of the Westminster bubble. I've escaped the routine of days that start with Today and end with Paxman on Newsnight, and spent time with my daughter and with other new parents.
The conversation often turned from sleepless nights to the cost of raising a family and how to balance work and home life. While I am fortunate, with a job that pays well and a strong family and support network, for too many people this is a tough time to start a family. Wages are down an average of £1,500 a year since Cameron, Clegg and Osborne entered government. After three wasted years of a flatlining economy, we are finally seeing signs of growth. But this recovery doesn't seem to be working for many families. Because of childcare, job scarcity or rising prices, many are feeling squeezed.
One friend has just had her second child. Returning to work after her first was just about financially viable. Now, with two pre-school children and no relatives nearby to help, the cost of sending two children to nursery means that she would be out of pocket. She simply can't afford to go out to work.
Another mum, in her mid-thirties with a one-year-old, has worked since leaving school at 18. But as a single parent she struggled financially, and has had to move back in with her parents. She can't go back to her former job, managing teams of people, because she couldn't get appropriate childcare. An experienced employee, she is now looking for lower-paid, low-skilled jobs to fit around her family commitments.
These parents were excited and proud to be raising a family. But each was anxious about the future. None of them felt the Government understood their concerns.
Under the coalition, women's unemployment has increased by 120,000 and women account for three-quarters of the rise in long-term unemployment. Britain's employment rate of women with children is much lower than other countries such as Sweden and Denmark, where there is affordable, high-quality childcare. The Women's Business Council has found that 2.4 million women who want to work outside the home have no job; a further 1.3 million women want to work more hours.
Too many women are not able to make the choices that are right for them and their families. Our nation is not making the most of women who want to work, and many mums are being forced out of the workplace entirely. The Labour leadership's plans will help build an economy where everyone plays their part, including the many women who want to earn. That's why enabling affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare will be a priority for the next Labour government.
As Ed Balls has said, in government we will have to confront a tough fiscal inheritance, with families under pressure, businesses that have lost vital opportunities to invest, and public finances in poor shape. But helping mums back to work makes sense for the economy and raises revenue. If our employment rate for mothers moved up to the average of the world's top five nations, 320,000 more women would have jobs and tax receipts would rise by £1.7bn.
More than a million families with children live in privately rented houses. At a time when home ownership is falling, tenants are facing record rents in the private sector. The coalition is making the situation worse, with house building now slower than at any time since the 1920s. Ed Miliband has called for a national register of landlords to ensure the private rented sector works fairly, and we desperately need the building of new, affordable family housing, not the stoking of a housing bubble.
While families are struggling to pay the bills and the increased costs of raising their children, Osborne has given an average tax cut of £100,000 to the 13,000 people who earn over £1m. Now there are proposals for a married couples' tax allowance that would not help the single mum struggling to make ends meet, and would not make up for cuts to tax credits that have hit families on modest incomes.
As children return to school, parents are digging deep to pay for uniforms, a winter coat, new books and more. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that the cost of necessities required to give a child a decent standard of living increased by 4 per cent last year. Few get a pay rise like that at the moment.
Parenthood is a wonderful adventure and privilege. But the living-standards crisis is squeezing families' incomes, forcing women out of the workplace and making it harder for many to make ends meet. Even people who felt they were doing quite well are struggling with higher costs, higher taxes and stagnant wages. It's a symptom of the coalition's failing economy that so many families are being stretched so far.
Back at work and raring to go, I will be taking on the Tories and the Lib Dems on their record when it comes to the cost of living and their failure to get the economy working for families. The 2015 general election will be a living-standards election.
Rachel Reeves is MP for Leeds West and a shadow Treasury spokesman