Coalition finds Lib Dems learning to sing in an awkward new key

The post-election thank you party demonstrates that not everyone is wild about the coalition.

Forty days after shocking the nation by entering into a coalition deal with the Tories, the Lib Dems met to reminisce about the general election campaign, and thank those who campaigned so hard, only to be disappointed by a low youth voter turnout and the overall loss of five seats.

The property tycoon and long-time Lib Dem supporter Ramesh Dewan hosted the event, held in the ballroom of the Park Plaza hotel in London. Significantly, this opulent location lies just across the river from the Palace of Westminster -- a constant reminder that although their election night did go entirely to plan, they are now a party of government.

Seeing Chris Huhne, now Energy and Climate Change Secretary, come bounding out of the front door to urge his smoking friends inside, was just another indicator of the strange mood at this gathering. The atmosphere was both heady (with power, perhaps?) and uncomfortable, as the room was crammed with members who remember Paddy Ashdown's leadership and were clearly very aware of the long road the party had travelled from those days to the brave new world of the "new politics".

There were giggles at the toastmaster's address; Lib Dems are not yet used to hearing themselves addressed as "lords, ladies, gentlemen, secretaries of state and ministers". But Dewan's address was very much in line with what we've been hearing from those new ministers. He spoke of achievements and Lib Dem manifesto commitments fulfilled.

However, the party president, Ros Scott, was not quite so strictly on-message. She acknowledged that members will have some "strange" feelings about the new situation, and implied that the leadership must earn their members' trust by the way the handle power in the coalition.

Promises made good

Naturally, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was very well received by those members present. It certainly felt like he had no need to earn back their trust as he made the customary after-dinner sallies, joking that there were still hairdressers who didn't recognise him and that his ego had taken something of a battering when confronted with children supremely unimpressed by his new position. The rhetoric of the campaign did make a brief reappearance, though, as he spoke of the promises that would be made good.

But the mood in the room became palpably awkward as he moved on to the sensitive issue of staff redundancies. As a party of government, the Lib Dems no longer receive the £1.8m of public funding they received in opposition. According to staff members I spoke to, this will mean cuts, and up to 39 jobs could go. Clegg put his customary optimistic spin on the matter, speaking of "the new opportunities and adventures we will face", but, according to one staff member, the job cuts are "the elephant in the room".

It isn't just staff members who are worried about money. There is a huge hole in the party's finances that is bound to affect campaign resources, and although many of the key people are now enjoying government salaries, a lack of cash will make the next campaign much tougher. Next time, we could be losing seats simply because we can't afford to put the resources into our campaign.

It's hard to tell whether these members are genuinely pleased to be in government. While there are those who told me that they loved the idea of the coalition and had few concerns about its future, there were far many more who expressed scepticism. One member from the right of the party, who has contested several parliamentary elections, said: "I can't say that this set-up is something I've campaigned for all these years. It's not really what I wanted."

Another source close to senior party figures believed that if Charles Kennedy were still leader, the party would not have entered into the coalition, preferring the "confidence and supply" arrangement that he said would have kept the party in far better health.

This is an unprecedented situation for the party, and it is bound to feel more than a little surreal. When the after-dinner entertainment started, many present were unable to tell if the Shirley Bassey impersonator was the real thing or not -- an indication, perhaps, of the disorientating effect of the coalition. I suppose if you look around the room to see the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the former BBC director general Greg Dyke amid the throng, it isn't so unbelievable that Shirley Bassey really could have come to sing for us.

Eduardo Reyes was vice-chair of Student Liberal Democrats. He worked for the Liberal Democrats from 1995-98, is a contributor to the Reformer magazine, and has been a party election agent and council candidate.

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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.