Culling all cliches: Hard working families

Last weekend Andrea Leadsom destroyed her dreams of becoming prime minister by the simple expedient of telling The Times that, in her opinion, having children gave her a ‘real stake’ in the future. This obviously had no relation to the fact that her rival for the job, Theresa May, was childless; indeed, as Leadsom herself was quick to point out, it would be wrong to make political capital out of such a contrast: ‘I don’t want this to be “Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t”, because I think that would be really horrible.’ [1]

Some people, however, thought that being horrible to May was precisely what she was up to. Others thought that her response to the ensuing storm – tearfully saying that she felt ‘under attack, under enormous pressure; it has been shattering’ [2] – demonstrated perhaps a little less resilience than one might wish for in a leader. So anyway, what with one thing and the other, Leadsom withdrew from the race.

And the consequence of all this is that we now have our first childless prime minister since Edward Heath left office in 1974. Whether that has any impact on what May does in government remains to be seen, but it does at least offer one crumb of hope; maybe, just maybe, it means we’ve seen the back of that mealy-mouthed cliché: ‘hard-working families’.

The phrase simply didn’t exist in political rhetoric until twenty-one years ago. Nobody saw any need for such an expression. The 1973 Labour Programme had famously called for a ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’, but that was different. For a start, it made sense; it didn’t imply – as does ‘hard-working families’ – that every member was at work. And it allowed very easily for everyone to fill in the missing word: ‘working’ was understood to mean ‘working-class’.

And, of course, that was precisely the sort of language that the New Labour Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown wanted to jettison.

So, in a speech in February 1995, Brown unveiled his new formulation as he railed against the Conservative government: ‘The truth is that everyone is worse off as a result of greater poverty and inequality and, while the very wealthy can insulate themselves from these effects, the vast majority of ordinary, decent, hard-working families cannot.’ [3]

Blair then borrowed the phrase for his conference speech later that year: ‘We all want ordinary hard-working families to pay less tax. But the way to cut tax is to cut unemployment, cut crime, cut welfare spending, all the reasons taxes have gone up.’ [4]

And, in its most famous articulation, Brown used it twice in a speech delivered in January 1997 (written by Ed Balls and Ed Miliband) announcing that New Labour was not in the business of raising income tax: ‘We want to encourage work, and after twenty-two tax rises since 1992 which have hit hard-working families, I want to make clear that a Labour government will not increase the basic rate of tax … My tax cutting ambition is to introduce a new lower starting rate of tax of 10 pence to encourage work for, and to help, all hard-working families.’ [5]

The joy of the expression was that it went beyond the working class and extended a friendly welcome to the suburban types, who New Labour were courting, while simultaneously implying distaste for the workless. It also cast doubt on the single and the childless, since common usage was quite clear about the meaning of the word ‘family’. According to a dictionary of the time, a family was ‘a social group consisting of parents and their offspring’. [6] However inclusive Blair tried to be with his definitions of what constituted a family in modern Britain, this was what everyone else understood.

The phrase caught on very quickly in mainstream Labour circles, and it’s stayed around for a very long time. Last year, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, denounced Conservative plans to curb tax credits: ‘Cutting this crucial benefit will consign millions of hard-working families and their children to living on the poverty line.’ [7]


It was also adopted by Tories. ‘We want a clear commitment to hard-working families,’ said future MP Brooks Newmark, at the 2004 conference:  ‘we will abolish this unfair and immoral tax.’ [8] He was talking about inheritance tax, which suggested just how distant the expression now was from ‘working people and their families’.

And once David Cameron, who saw himself as the heir to Blair, became Conservative leader, the phrase was inescapable on both sides of politics. Indeed, on all sides. This was Tim Farron last year, back on those tax credits: ‘The phrase “hard-working families” has become a terrible political cliche. But in the case of those that will be most hit by the removal of tax credits, it turns out to be spot on.’ [9]

But now it feels as though the tide is turning. Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t use language like that. And nor, one hopes, will Theresa May.

In his farewell speech in Downing Street on Wednesday, Cameron gave the phrase one last outing: ‘I think of the hard-working families paying lower taxes and getting higher wages because of the first ever National Living Wage.’ [10]

And then, later the same day, May made her first speech as prime minister, also in Downing Street, and the difference in language was delightfully direct: ‘If you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realize.’ [11]

[1] Times 9 July 2016

[2] Daily Telegraph 11 July 2016

[3] Times 11 February 1995

[4] Times 4 October 1995

[5] Times 21 January 1997

[6] Collins Paperback English Dictionary (HarperCollins, 1999)

[7] Scotland on Sunday 22 June 2015

[8] Times 5 October 2004

[9] Birmingham Mail 21 November 2015

[10] Yorkshire Post 13 July 2016

[11] Daily Telegraph 14 July 2016


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