Five years ago, in the run-up to the 2010 general election, Relationships Foundation published its Wellbeing in the Mirror – achieving and measuring a new sort of change, in which we asked the reader to “Imagine it’s May, 2015: what change will you have needed to see in the lifetime of a government to judge whether progress has been made in the right direction?”

Well, five years on it’s time for the report card which, in brief, reads: “Can Do Much Better, Must Do Much Better.”

Back in 2010 we argued that progress on the economy – tackling the deficit and restoring growth – would, of course, be essential. This would be important for wellbeing: unemployment, debt problems, job insecurity and high levels of inequality are harmful. But we also restated our case for the “big idea” we had been putting to the political parties for some years past that policy development, proposals for legislation and government action  should all be subject to a “Triple Test” – covering economic, environmental and social policy. In particular, we argued for an overarching “family-proofing” of policy as the cornerstone of the process of government. We wrote: 

A focus on relationships as the key to wellbeing allows for a more positive, less authoritarian, role for government of encouraging, enabling and supporting. Political leadership must look at where we are heading, put forward a vision for the future, and help us to get there. 

Getting relationships right is arguably the most important agenda in public policy, public services, business, communities and in our personal lives. We know what is needed. Our understanding of how to do it is improving. Let’s make sure debate is informed by an illuminating picture of what’s going on. In such a way we, as a country, can learn to have a better understanding of the advantages of trust, commitment, and neighbourliness and the life-destroying qualities of loneliness, distrust and social breakdown. It’s time to measure, through the relationships that hold us together, what makes life worthwhile.

In particular we highlighted the importance of family relationships for wellbeing and for enabling progress in the face of fiscal constraints. In this context we have followed most closely the record of the Conservative Party, the major partner in the coalition government, which entered the 2010 election with strong pledges on how to “make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe”.  Recognising that “strong families are the bedrock of a strong society” they promised to “help families with all the pressures they face”. The bottom line of this was that “Britain’s families will get our full backing across all our policies”.

The Conservatives’ Family Friendly pledge survived formally into the Coalition Agreement: “the Government believes that strong and stable families of all kinds are the bedrock of a strong and stable society. That is why we need to make our society more family friendly.” After the coalition agreement was signed, David Cameron wrote in the Daily Mail that “making Britain more family-friendly is still a crucial objective of this coalition government” (21 May 2010).

This seemed like a promising start but it was quickly apparent that political realities were falling far behind rhetoric. The constraints of coalition, the struggle to make the “Big Society” work as a narrative for government, and perhaps above all the priorities of deficit reduction and restoring economic growth, squeezed out much of the early optimism of social reform. With household incomes under pressure, the most important support for families became support for their incomes. “Winning the global race” and dealing with the fiscal deficit became the driving narrative of government.

An early key mistake was the lack of clearly designated cabinet level responsibility for family policy. This was partly a consequence of the Department for Children, Schools and Families changing to a more focused Department for Education. Family policy was also a casualty of coalition politics meaning that rather than clear leadership, responsibilities became dissipated across a number of departments. While the Social Justice cabinet committee brought some integration, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has at times flexed his muscles, coherence across government has been limited. Meanwhile, lack of support from the Treasury has been a persistent problem. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is seen as less instinctively supportive and the lack of a Cabinet level individual to argue the case (as happens, for instance, with environmental issues) has hampered the development of a coherent family policy.

There have, however, been some more positive developments: funding for relationships education, more integrated support for troubled families, recognition of the importance of relationship stability in both the Social Justice Outcomes framework and in the Family Stability Review. Even the pledge to recognise marriage in the tax system has been belatedly (if very inadequately) fulfilled, though single earner couples will still find the UK tax system to be particularly unfavourable to them in comparison to other countries. And, late in the day, we were also pleased to see the Department of Work and Pensions begin to develop a Family Test of policy, something we have long argued for.

Now. during the current election campaign, we are hearing much about the continuing need for deficit reduction, the pressures on social care in an ageing society, the costs of welfare, and the plight of those for whom “recovery” has little concrete expression in their daily lives. But across the political spectrum there are also signs of interest in a more relational approach to policy. So, to take an example from the centre-left, John Cruddas recently said:

Throughout our lives we are dependent upon others for our wellbeing and sense of identity. Relationships give meaning to our lives. They bind us all together into society and give us our sense of belonging. We are literally nothing without them. . . . We need government that helps create the conditions for families and people’s relationships to thrive.[1]

And from the centre-right Fraser Nelson (The Spectator) and Tim Montgomerie (The Times), among others, have argued strongly for the role of family and marriage in tackling inequality and promoting social justice.

We welcome the fact that relationships are becoming a much more prominent theme in policy debate. Yet post-election it will be all too easy for this to slip away in the face of economic pressures and, possibly, coalition compromises. We will therefore continue closely to monitor the implementation of the Family Test: not just to ensure that relationships are not adversely affected, but also to ensure that all government departments are aware of the extent to which their goals rely on strong relationships, and the means by which such relationships might best be supported.

The electoral adage “It’s the Economy, stupid” loses some potency when the fruits of progress appear to be more austerity. If people are to experience progress in their lives it is also “Relationships, stupid.”


See also: 

Our ‘Wellbeing Series’ from 2008 and following years 

. . . and especially

Our ‘State of the Nation’ published before the last election 2010


Review of progress in 2014