Keir Starmer has recently announced that Labour’s rebrand will reframe as the party of ‘family’. But what does that mean? And why are so many people worried about it online?
What even are family values anyway?
So what do we mean when we use the term ‘family values’? Perhaps when you hear the phrase you think of the values of the people that you consider as family. Maybe that includes being honest, even if it leads to arguments at family gatherings; or competitiveness, which manifests in explosive games of Risk or Monopoly. Perhaps instead you think of valuing families – such as policies in countries like Estonia to try and encourage people to have more children. After all – populations are shrinking or ‘greying’ (becoming older on average) in several countries around the world. However, this is not what most hear when they hear someone defending ‘family values’ – many recognise the term as being a far right dog whistle. Back in 2013 journalist Emma Green discussed why American liberals struggle to talk about ‘family values’ precisely because the term has become so toxic due to its associations with the new right like Ronald Reagan and ‘The Moral Majority’.
Sociological theories of family
Before we delve into how the right has co-opted the concept of family, let’s explore the sociological theories behind the concept of family. What are the key theories of family?
- Functionalism – functionalists view the family as the most basic building block that makes up society. For them, the nuclear family has a particular function within society – namely the raising and conditioning of children.
- New right – the new right perspective is similar to functionalism in that they believe there is only one valid form of family, and that is a nuclear and heterosexual one. I will unpack this theory further below.
- Marxist – there are various Marxist perspectives on the family. Essentially the Marxist view on family is to see the construction of the family as an idea as an extension of political systems, especially capitalism. Engels argues that the concept of private property and the nuclear family are tightly woven together – inheritance, competition and ownership invest the family with a great deal of importance, as wealth needs to be hoarded and passed on through family in capitalism.
- Symbolic interactionism – proposed by theorists such as Morgan, this theory argues that family is formed through ‘family practices’. These symbolic actions, such as caring and talking, create family over time. Who is included in your family can change as who you change who you choose to include in these symbolic interactions.
New right family values
If you’ve spent much time online as an openly LGBTQ+ person or openly left-wing person or a feminist you will have at some point have been accused of wanting to ‘destroy the family’. Since I happen to be all of these, this accusation is something I am regularly subjected to. On the surface this is patently ridiculous – since we exist in the world both queer and leftist people have some degree of family. We are seeing an increased visibility for queer families in the media, although this too receives regular backlash. People of colour, and families of mixed ethnicities, are also targeted by this thinking. Why? Because the concept of ‘family’ for the right-wing is:
This last bullet-point reveals an interesting tension. The family of the right is that of Margaret Thatcher – that which is contained within one household. Sometimes this household might include a grandparent, for caring purposes. So while the new and far right may profess to love the family and uphold family values – families should also not be ‘done’ in excess. Too many children, or the inclusion of cousins, aunts, uncles, second cousins, the close friends we call ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’ – this is alien and other to the conservative concept of the WASP-ish, Christian-influenced version of the ideal family. Too ‘ethnic’, too ‘Catholic’, too ‘working-class’ – the happy sprawling vision of family many of us hold is unacceptable.
This family is never:
- Matriarchal or equal
- A single-parent family
- Large and multi-generational
Family values as a weapon
The right-wing concept of the family is precarious and fragile. Why do I say this? Because the right-wing is constantly vigilant against ‘threats to the family’ – or rather, their own narrow concept of family. Whether it’s entire movements, such as Marxism, or subversive individuals, such as single-mothers, these threats must be othered, shamed and ousted from society in order to preserve The Family. Bob Gould explores the toxic idea of family values in his paper on ‘Fear of Feminism’.
Some key dangers:
A single mother – we forget how much we demonised single mothers as a culture back in the nineties. They were taken as a sign of the fragmentation and destruction of society – why? Because it represented the breakdown of the patriarchy. Single men were not to blame, of course – as is regularly asserted by far right commentator Stefan Molyneux – it is the woman’s fault for falling pregnant to a bad man, and not accepting her traditional subservient, chaste and passive role as a married stay-at-home mum. Molyneux once argued: “If you don’t have a husband … to keep the child is abusive.” This links into the idea that feminists are seeking to destroy the family – because feminists challenge the idea of the patriarchal family structure and ask for equality. The rigid concept of the family proposed by the right cannot cope with two equal partners, so to them feminists must secretly be hoping to destroy the family with the push for equality.
A Marxist/leftist/socialist/lib (since all are used synonymously by the right) – is a threat because of the left’s vision of society as being centred in community, rather than individual families. The atomised and competitive nature of the right, from neo-liberalism to fascism, means that the family cannot be viewed as being embedded within a wider support structure. The old adage ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is older than the right’s idea of single-home nuclear families. This adage sums up the view of many leftists on family – but right-wingers believe it is wrong.
The queers – well, where to start? The LGBTQ+ community are perceived as a threat because of the plurality of families they might create beyond the ‘traditional’ one – the only one that is allowed by the right. The queer concept of the ‘found family’, bound by affection and common-circumstance is rejected by the right. The idea of two parents of the same gender is reprehensible. A polyamorous group raising children? Unthinkable. Because of the right-wing, conservatively Christian thinking that underpins the idea of ‘Family values’ anyone queer must be exiled from the realm of family. They are uniformly represented by the right as a danger to children – in the campaigns against discrimination in the 1980s, the move to repeal Section 28 in the nineties, the campaign for equal marriage rights in the noughties, or the campaign for trans rights now. The right consistenly equate queer people with disease, surgery, pain and paedophilia – all in an attempt to deny them access to society and family life. The arguments have remained consistent, although the targeted community within the rainbow family has changed.
So why do they care?
As we’ve seen the increasing representation of mixed-ethnicity families in popular culture, this particular area of danger has been less challenged by the right. But it’s useful to understand why they opposed marriage between different ethnic groups to start with. To put it simply: it’s love. You love your family. You empathise with them. It breaks down the arbitrary lines drawn around society in order to create artificial hierarchies, which the right seek to reinforce. It’s hard to believe that one ethnicity is subhuman or prone to being criminal if you love someone from that ethnicity. If you can have beautiful children created from this union, it undermines the idea that ethnicities are actually different species, as argued by neo-Nazis. The same logic applies to all the groups above. Harvey Milk forced people working in his activist group to come out to their family – a controversial move for many, as it risked many young queer people losing contact with their families. In 1978 he said:
Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents. I know that it is hard and will hurt them, but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop. Come out only to the people you know, and who know you, not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.
He did this because he knew that it’s easier to be tolerant for a marginalised group when you know and love a member of that group. When Nora Mulready wrote about changing her mind about the gender critical movement when her nephew came out as trans, she was attacked by gender critical people. Love had changed her mind. And this was unacceptable.
Progress and resistance
Those in the centre of the political spectrum and some right-wingers do not share these rigid ideas on family. For them the key element is social acceptability or marketability. If you can sell cereal or pop drinks with or to a demographic, then for some pure capitalists, it ceases to be an issue. Cold hard cash is the only measure of morality for them. So, we’ve seen more feminists, people of colour and queer people co-opted into the mainstream as they have become saleable. The aim of the culture war of the right is to stop these groups from being seen as normal or marketable for the mainstream – to exclude these groups from society, from family, from human rights.
In 2013 there was an enormous racist backlash to a Cheerios advert because they showed a mixed-ethnicity family.
One Million Moms, an offshoot of the American Family Association, campaign against an astonishing range of things – including Toy Story 4 – for including queer representation. Transgender Trend, an anti-trans pressure group, wrote about the disgust they felt to a Bafta Award winning episode of My Life, shown on the BBC kids channel called ‘I am Leo’. Why? Because it showed a happy trans child in a supportive family. The GC movement has recently attacked: Mermaids, a trans kids charity; Stonewall, an LGBTQ+ charity; Amnesty International, a human rights charity; Innocent smoothies; Her, a queer dating app; and Oreo cookies. It’s easy to laugh at these hateful campaigns – why are they so angry at a smoothie company or cookies? But their purpose is the same as One Million Moms – to make mainstream companies cease to see trans people as a mainstream demographic, and force trans people back onto the fringes of their society, where equal rights are harder to fight for. These groups are the descendents of groups like the Moral Majority, which campaigned against abortion, LGBTQ people and the Equal Rights Act. They use the same tactics, the same arguments and they even work with the same Christian fundamentalist organisations, such as the Heritage Foundation.
The future of Labour, flags and the family
So when the Labour party decided to market themselves as the party of family, many people were alarmed. While they belatedly tried to make clear this also included LGBTQ+ people, the concept of ‘family values’ has been used as a cudgel on the marginalised for decades. The idea of family is often presented as concrete and fixed. We all know from our own lives that families come in all shapes, sizes and colours. The values of all those interwoven families are hardly uniform – there are fascist families, there are communist families and sometimes, such as in the case of the Mitfords, these are sometimes the same family.
Like Labour’s leaked memo suggesting they need to associate with the British flag and wear smart suits, becoming the ‘party of family’ is a potentially worrying move. What are Labour signalling when they choose to use symbols like the British flag or family values, long associated with far right ideology? Neither the flag nor the family are naturally right-wing. Symbols take on meaning through use, however, and these have been used by the far right for a long, long time. Is Starmer seeking to disrupt the far right’s use of them? Or is he seeking to surf the rising tide of far right extremism by borrowing their feathers? Only time can tell.