Goodbye to Jack Straw

Will we miss him? I won’t.

First Alistair Darling and now, surprise, surprise, Jack Straw. From the BBC website:

[The] former Labour cabinet member Jack Straw is to step down from his current role, ending 30 years of front-bench politics.

The Blackburn MP has held many of the top jobs in British politics, including foreign secretary and home secretary.

Elected to parliament in 1979 as the member for Blackburn, Straw was a campaign manager for Tony Blair's 1994 Labour leadership bid and then performed the same role again for Gordon Brown in 2007. He was one of only three people to have served in the cabinet continuously from Labour's victory in 1997 until its defeat in 2010 (the other two being Brown and Darling). He was once described by Sky's Adam Boulton as "the longest-serving British cabinet minister since Gladstone" and by the Evening Standard's David Cohen as "the longest-serving cabinet minister since Lloyd George", but both descriptions, as the Indie's John Rentoul has noted, are factually inaccurate.

I can't say I'm going to miss Straw. Nothing personal -- in fact, I'm a fan of his son (and potential replacement in Blackburn?) Will -- but, for a start, he is one of the so-called greybeards whom I blame, along with Geoff "I Want to Make Money" Hoon, for wrongly persuading Brown against going to the polls in the autumn of 2007. Labour would have won then, rather than lost in May 2010.

He is also a classic Labour tribalist who was a roadblock to electoral reform during the party's 13 years in office. I remember bumping into him outside the conference chamber in Brighton in September 2009, after Brown's speech, in which the then prime minister revealed that he had converted to AV only (rather than full proportional representation, as Alan Johnson, John Denham and other pluralists in the cabinet had been urging him to).

Straw couldn't hide the smile on his face as he briefed reporters. I suspect that even now, he is delighted at the prospect of Labour campaigning for a No vote in next year's AV referendum, due to the Lib-Con coalition's outrageous decision to bundle together electoral reform with the so-called equalisation and reduction in the number of Commons seats.

But there is one issue which, more than any other, will stain Straw's reputation for ever, and for which I, and others, will never forgive him. From the BBC again:

As foreign secretary, he played a central role in the decision to commit British troops to the US-led invasion of Iraq and in unsuccessful attempts to secure a second UN resolution on the eve of war.

In evidence to the Chilcot inquiry in January, he described his decision to back the 2003 war as the "most difficult" of his career, describing it as a "profoundly difficult political and moral dilemma".

In his evidence to the Iraq inquiry, Straw also admitted that he could have stopped the war if he had opposed the invasion in cabinet, but he chose to remain loyal to Tony Blair. In recent years, the former foreign secretary has tried to portray himself as some sort of reluctant supporter of the war, if not a sceptic. And yet, as a producer on the Jonathan Dimbleby programme between the years 2002 and 2004, I remember Straw appearing several times on the show to passionately, cogently and, of course, disingenuously promote, support and defend that disastrous and disgusting decision. But it does seem that, in private, he had his doubts (see the Downing Street memo for the Straw quote on the case for war being "thin"). Thanks for sharing those doubts with us, Jack, and with parliament and the UN Security Council.

Oh wait a minute . . . you didn't. So shame on you. And goodbye.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.