When Jeremy Hunt announced in the Spring Budget 30 hours of free childcare a week for 38 weeks per year, for eligible working parents of children aged 9 months to 3 years, he kicked off the fight for the next general election in earnest.
Not only did the Chancellor’s announcement wrong-foot Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson, who has been pitching childcare as the flagship education policy for Labour, it also emphasised that the Conservatives are serious about winning votes from young parents in particular. Recent polling reveals that currently, only 13% of 25-49-year-olds would vote Conservative at the next general election, and only 11% of 18-24-year-olds would do the same, the two age cohorts most likely to benefit from the policy. With over a quarter of the population in the 100 most marginal Conservative seats being parents with a child under the age of 11, it is no wonder that the Government’s policy announcements are gearing towards this demographic.
This policy is a huge expansion of the welfare state, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies stating that this new proposal will mean that Whitehall is going to be responsible for the price of 80% of pre-school childcare in England, underlining that the Conservatives are investing heavily in a cohort they believe they must win over to win the next general election.
This announcement comes alongside other developments that signal family policy is going to loom large at the next general election. For instance, Family Hubs being rolled out across half of the country’s local authorities to provide health, parenting and relationship support for families that may require additional assistance.
How these policies impact parents’ lives, livelihoods and views of the Conservative Government could end up being extremely consequential to the next general election.
The policy and its consequences
When the Chancellor announced the policy, he largely couched it as a resolution to the current crisis in Britain’s workforce. According to the Government’s own estimations, there are 435,000 people in England with a child under three who are not in work due to their caring responsibilities. Hunt spoke of “removing the barriers to work” and insisted that reforming childcare was part of the Government’s growth plan. However, the IFS has stated the changes will bring around 60,000 people into the workforce – only around 14% of the number of people the Government estimates are not in work due to their caring responsibilities. Whilst, for the average full-time working mother, this policy represents a larger gain than removing their entire income tax and national insurance contributions, it seems, the Chancellor is banking on this persuading enough young parents to vote Conservative at the next general election to avoid the defeat polling currently predicts.
The other huge implication of the free childcare policy is the impact it may have on early years providers. The sector is already under enormous strain. Sector leaders stated in a recent Education Select Committee session that in the previous 12 months, there had been record levels of providers closing. Not only that, but the sector is struggling enormously with recruitment and retention; 40% of staff in the sector leave after just two years. The announcement in the Spring Budget resulted in one early years provider stating this development “will be the end of nurseries”.
There are serious concerns across the sector that the increase of free hours funding from £204 million this year to £288 million next year will be well below what is required. Currently, the free hours provided are cross-subsidised by parents who do pay for childcare. The Government’s expansion of free hours is going to further squeeze early years providers and put more at risk of closing, which would ultimately lead to more parents unable to source childcare and exacerbate the problem.
Labour’s next move
Perhaps Hunt’s greatest political achievement with this announcement has been to take the wind out of Labour’s sails. Phillipson had been signalling that reform to childcare would be a cornerstone of Labour’s policy platform come the next general election, stating that a Labour Government would entirely reform the childcare system by removing the entitlement completely. However, details on what they would do to replace it or how this would be funded have not yet been provided.
At this moment, the Conservatives have taken control of the narrative in the debate on childcare policy. However, with the general election looking likely to be 18 months away, Labour has time to set out a fully-costed policy that will address the queries of parents and the early years sector. Whether they can come up with a convincing argument and offer will be critical as it tries to reinsert itself as the party for families.
The emphasis that both leading political parties have placed on childcare policy suggests that this is shaping up to be a key battleground and that young parents are being identified as potential key swing voters.
Interestingly, the policy is not set to be rolled out until April 2024, which is likely to be a few months or weeks away from the general election, though we do not have an exact date. However, whether the Government is leaving itself enough time for the effects of the policy to affect voting intention remains to be seen.