Sally Bercow: Cameron is "a merchant of spin"

The Speaker's wife gives a candid interview. Will it have repercussions?

Guest post by Samira Shackle

The Evening Standard has published a no-holds barred interview with Sally Bercow, wife of John, the Commons speaker.

Revealing that she plans to run for parliament as a Labour candidate, she gives all the skeletons in her closet a good airing: "I had no stop button", she says, describing herself as a "ladette" who drank two bottles of wine a day. She adds: "I would end up sometimes at a bar and someone would send a drink over, and I'd think, 'Why not?' and we'd go home together."

Can you hear the screeches of excitement from Daily Mail towers? (impressively, they've managed to fit all the key words into the headline - "Sally Bercow: I was a binge-drinking ladette who downed two bottles of wine a day and had one-night stands")

But, perhaps more interestingly given her husband's party alliance, she also - in no uncertain terms - sets out her opinion of David Cameron and his so-called "progressive" policies:

He's just a merchant of spin. I think he's really an archetypal Tory. He favours the interests of the few over the mainstream majority. Deep down, I do think the Tory party is for the privileged few and what it stands for isn't in the interests of most ordinary people. They're not really interested in opportunity for all. He has his children at state school now but let's see what happens at secondary level. There's not a real commitment to the state sector among the Tories. The vast majority of the shadow cabinet send their children privately.

She doesn't stop there, reserving further criticism for grammar schools: "I don't even want to send the children to the grammars in John's constituency. I'm strongly against selection, because it entrenches privilege."

John Bercow has long occupied an uncertain grey area between party lines, with many predicting that he would defect to Labour back in 2007. As Benedict Brogan points out, this attack on grammar schools will not go down well in his Buckingham constituency, where they are a source of pride.

Could it cost him his seat?

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.