OK, I know the rules of ‘being a left-wing blogger if you’re not actually running a think-tank’. You pick on the government about most things and talk up the backbenchers, especially the ones who have their own blogs. I’m aware I’ve been letting things slide quite a lot, recently, what will all the linking to Alastair Campbell (my friend Ric’s first suggestion for ‘people he would put in Political Room 101’ – guess who mine is, go on, guess), but dammit, he’s funny.
Today, however, I may have crossed the line into ‘unforgiveable’. Not only have I defended – sort of – an entire government department, but it was Hazel’s. And now, I’m about to have a long and sustained go at a backbencher. A Labour one. I apologise in advance.
A Labour MP has launched a fierce attack on teenage mothers, accusing them of raising a new “underclass”.
Writing in his blog, former transport minister Tom Harris described the “army of teenage mothers living off the state” as a “national catastrophe”.
Mr Harris began the blog by recounting how when his wife gave birth two years ago there was a young woman, aged about 16, in the same maternity ward.
He described how the woman’s father spoke loudly of his pride in his daughter.
“Proud? Proud that his teenage daughter was not only sexually active but was now a mother?” he wrote.
“Proud that any chance of a decent education, followed by a decent job, was now remote at best?
“Proud that she was, in all likelihood, about to embark on a lifetime of depending on benefit handouts for her and her child?”
He said he could no longer pretend that “the army of teenage mothers living off the state is anything other than a national catastrophe”.
“Teenage girls shouldn’t be having underage sex. Why? Because it’s wrong,” he continued.
“Teenage girls shouldn’t choose to have babies as an alternative to getting an education and a career. Why? Because it’s wrong.
“Parents shouldn’t teach their children that a lifetime on benefits is attractive or even acceptable. Why? Because it’s wrong.”
Now, One Parent Families Scotland have already covered, in the same article, much of what is wrong with this. But for fear that any odious points have been missed, I’m going to list everything wrong with what Harris said, and you’re going to read it (oh, yes you are) and tell me if I missed any out.
1. It is not two days since I took the piss out of a Lib Dem for using the word ‘underclass’, and I am not happy about seeing it again.
2. If you read the blog – and I link to it reluctantly – what Harris actually describes is ‘a very young girl…She was, I guess, about 16.’ This may be a small point: but he didn’t know how old she was. She could have been a young-looking 22. She could have been 12. She could, in fact, have been 16. It doesn’t matter. But since he’s spraying his moralising judgement of this woman, her father and her child all over the internet, could he perhaps have stopped to check his facts first?
3. Still on the age – if you were wondering whether it’s different in Scotland, then no, no it isn’t – the age of consent is the same up there. 16. So his reference to ‘teenage girls having underage sex’ is a little disingenuous. It might be OK under law, but turns out you have to check it with your MP first.
4. His main gripe with this woman’s father – apart from the volume of his voice – is that he was proud of his daughter. Now, let’s think that through a little. Clearly what Harris would have liked is for this man to have been ashamed of his daughter. Not to have congratulated her on having successfully got through the trials of pregnancy and labour; not to have made it clear, to her and everyone else in earshot, that whatever she did with her life, he would support her – probably he should have avoided the hospital altogether and banned her from coming back to his house with the baby. Or he could have saved himself this whole messy dilemma and forced her to have an abortion! Ah, progress.
5. I should make it clear that Harris does say in his post ‘I don’t think he should have been ashamed. And it’s great that this youing girl had such a loving dad to support her.’ The problem is, the rest of his post completely contradicts that. ‘But proud?’ Well, yes, that’s the opposite of ashamed. It’s like his assertion that he isn’t on a back-to-basics moral crusade – later on in this blog post, which is entitled ‘The return of morality’. The man’s a blogging contradiction-in-terms.
6. ‘Teenage girls shouldn’t choose to have babies as an alternative to getting an education and a career. Why? Because it’s wrong.’
He’s missing two words out here, and the first is ‘poor‘. He means ‘poor teenage girls’. No-one would have given a flying fuck if Charlotte Church had had her first kid a couple of years earlier and been a teenage mother, because she was rich and she didn’t need any help from the state. This is why Harris is getting confused – he’s throwing words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ around like confetti when what he’s really talking about is benefits. More on that in a minute.
The other word is ‘single‘. If you’re married (and that’s legal at 16 too, remember), and your happy hubby is working, and you choose babies as an alternative to university and a career then, well, the hairy-legs brigade and I might hand-wring about whether you really chose that path of your own free will, but the Tom Harrises of the world will leave you alone. And the state will too, of course. No Jobcentreplus for you.
7. One word is very conspicuously missing from Harris’ entire rant, of course, and that’s ‘Dad‘. Given that the most prominent teenage-parent media story of recent months has been about that baby-faced dad, it seems a startling omission. I thought it might have been due to editing on the BBC’s part so I checked back through the post and no, no, that’s actually how he wrote it. Teenage boys can screw around to their heart’s content, it seems. Why is it that the parent who has to feed and clothe and house the children is the drain on society? Why is it, for the love of God, that the parent who stays is the one setting children a bad example?
8. Harris’ central point is, indeed, not about morality: it is about aspiration. He contends that children who are brought up by a parent on benefits are less likely to see themselves as a potential, valuable member of the workforce. And he’s right, of course – of course he is right that children and parents need to feel that they are valued and that they have worth.
Leaving aside the fact that, as OPFS pointed out, having a baby at 16 leaves you a hell of a long time to get a job after they go to school (especially with last autumn’s changes to Income Support); and leaving aside the fact that no-one could teach their kids that a life on benefits is attractive, because it isn’t; and leaving aside the fact that anyone who watches their single parent bring up a lot of children is likely to conclude ‘fuck that, I’ll go and do something easier, like be Prime Minister’)…
…of course there are families where teenagers have never seen a parent go out to work (often because their parents couldn’t find work), and of course there are families where girls, especially, feel that the best way to feel loved and useful is to have children of their own. And it’s a crying shame, and I am embarrassed that this situation still exists after we’ve been so long in government, and of course we need to raise people’s aspirations from birth onwards. And the government is working on it, they honestly are providing real help now, but it is a culture that will take a long, long time to turn around.
But you know what isn’t real help now? You know what is doing absolutely fuck-all to raise the aspirations of young people and help them out of the benefits culture?
It’s announcing to the internet that for a 16-year-old with a baby, ‘any chance of a decent education, followed by a decent job, [is] now remote at best’.
It’s slandering parents for trying to support their children when they become parents (when, as every single parent knows, grandparents are the single greatest asset you can have when you’re trying to get off benefits).
It’s perpetuating the stereotype that children are the sole responsibility (fault) of the mother.
It’s using the word ‘underclass’.
It’s when all of this – all of this poisonous bollocks – comes from a member of the Labour Party, for fuck’s sake.
I am sick to death of this, I absolutely am, sick to death and furious and worst of all, I am so, so disappointed that this came from a member of my party. I was brought up a member of the Labour Party because I was brought up by a single mother, and when we were little this what the Tories used to say, and they were saying it about us. Harris hasn’t said ‘single mothers’ because we all know that’s hideously offensive. Yet if you try and cover yourself by saying ‘teenage mothers’, even if you mean the exact same thing, somehow you can hope to get away with it.
Labour are still the party providing real help now to families of all shapes and sizes without presuming to pass moral judgement on them, and I am thoroughly proud of my party; but I am ashamed to share it with a man who would preach such derogatory bile about his own constituents, and if I was one of them I would be demanding an apology.
Sorry to anyone who’s still with me, 1685 words later. But did I miss anything out? 🙂