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Childcare and the Labo(u)r Parties: Why Australian Labour dominated the issue decades before their UK counterparts

Kathleen Henehan
The London School of Economics & Political Science
Kathleen Henehan
The London School of Economics & Political Science
Open Panel

Abstract

This paper asks why in 1970 the Australian Labour Party (ALP) denounced the country’s first public childcare policy (Liberal-proposed) and employed a strategy of policy dispersion (Riker 1996), only to quickly reverse course and become the “champion” of the childcare support by the 1972 federal election; whilst British Labour, in contrast to their Australian counterparts, remained largely static on the issue throughout the 1970s and 1980s, doing little to challenge the Conservatives on childcare until the 1990s. Exogenous variables related to issue competition cannot explain the timing difference: both countries exhibited fairly similar rates of female labour force participation over the decades, as well as similar public attitudes towards maternal employment and child day care. Nor can several endogenous ‘party’ theories help: both countries maintained clear ‘left’ and ‘right’ parties (Korpi 1983, Hibbs 1975), just as – from a modern perspective on partisan competition – both seem to operate in ‘bloc’ rather than ‘pivot’ competition structures (Green-Pedersen 2002). As such, this paper turns its attention towards differences – and changes over time – in the electoral foundations of Australian and British Labour, drawing loosely from both ‘cartel party’ (Katz and Mair 1995) and party realignment (Esping-Andersen 1999) theories. Extracts from a comparative historical analysis of secondary source literature and campaign manifestos support the hypothesis that in 1970s Australia, where trade unions were more unified and amenable to female members’ demands than in Britain, the ALP had more to gain from highlighting middle-class childcare benefits than did the Liberals. In Britain, where, on top of a fiscal crisis, a more fractionalized trade union system was slower to respond to demands from its female members. Labour anticipated little electoral return for childcare investment relative to their opponents and as such, colluded with the Conservatives in dispersing the issue of care. That is, until the 1990s when a partisan realignment related to female voters (Norris 1996) and highly educated middle class workers (Esping-Andersen 1999), coupled with an outreach towards employer organisations, provided New Labour an ideal window opportunity to finally dominate the childcare issue.