November 30, 2012 7:35 pm

Political parenting – a user’s guide

Only when we have a pool of the truly unengaged will we have a foster system we can trust
Illustration of a child reading political material©Lucas Varela

At last, I thought, when news broke that social workers decided that membership of Ukip was incompatible with foster care. It was a surprise, nonetheless. I’d assumed that if we were going to start vetoing people by party affiliation, the Lib Dems looked a likelier first step. But it must be good news that we are vigorously vetting who can look after children. It can’t be long before we start setting conditions before granting a conception licence. Prohibiting neck tattoos might be a start. It’s for the good of the children, after all.

The official reason for victimising the foster family was that the kids in their care were from ethnic minorities and Ukip has “racist” views. The nonsense of this decision is understood, but this just shows the lack of imagination on the part of the social workers. The real reason to disqualify Ukip members is that you don’t want impressionable kids growing up fuming about the loss of imperial measure. Someone has to act to spare vulnerable kids from those types; the ones who know all the verses to “God Save the Queen”; these poor mites want love and affection, not the working time directive as a bedtime story.

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Robert Shrimsley

But why stop at Ukip? Frankly, anyone who joins a political party must be suspect. Seriously, who entrusts a child to someone dedicated to making Ed Miliband prime minister? Even his wife left his name off their first child’s birth certificate. I think we know why. Must we wait for another tragedy? “The signs were all there. The foster family spent hours on the ConservativeHome website and regularly attended meetings addressed by Grant Shapps. Did this really sound like a place of safety?” And don’t imagine the Greens are any better. It is one thing to care about leaving a planet for our children to inherit; it is quite another to be so obsessed as to want to do anything about it.

It wasn’t always like this. Membership of a political party wasn’t always incompatible with parental responsibilities. It could be argued that it even demonstrated a degree of civic responsibility. It may still be OK if the putative foster family can prove they are only passive members, though they should be carefully monitored for signs of a slide into full-scale activism. But real activism should be a screaming siren to social services. This is because politics has changed. Once, you joined a political party because you couldn’t find a girlfriend and there was nothing on the telly. Maybe it offered social advancement. Now there are so many alternatives. What right-thinking individual is stuffing leaflets for David Cameron when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is available on the XBox, and you can network more effectively on LinkedIn?

Voting matters; caring about issues is good; but activism is increasingly the preserve of the strange and the obsessed. Parties have always housed such people, but where once these fanatics were protected from the public by an ozone layer of normal members, increasingly it seems those protective layers are being eroded, leaving us exposed to the dangerous heat of activists’ political rays. These people put off ordinary members, monopolise activities and drive their party into an increasingly narrow view of itself. This is a generalisation, of course. There are exceptions. A talented MP or a new leader can mobilise a wider base of activists. But all too often they soon melt away, leaving the party back in the hands of the excitably earnest.

In addition, party political activism is less cool, so the motivated tend to be drawn towards pressure groups and single-issue campaigns. Perhaps social services should look at these too. Then again, we don’t want to be too restrictive. It is probably more important to target those religious types who actually believe in God for reasons other than securing a good school place.

Instead of excoriating Rotherham social services, we need to applaud them. Vulnerable children need protection. Only when we have a pool of the truly unengaged, the admirably sedentary – the type who only vote in The X Factor – will we have a foster system we can trust.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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