The dilemmas of a would-be councillor

It’s official then. Less than six months after the hurly-burly of the May local elections, the Labour councillor for my home ward of Kentish Town has resigned leaving two Lib Dems and a vacancy, so we will be having a by-election in December for which I have been selected as the candidate.

It couldn’t have come in a better area for us in Camden. Kentish Town was our second best ward in May (after Highgate where we had two councillors elected) and I was only 157 votes behind the Labour councillor who won, so we’ll be fighting hard to take this seat and think we have a good chance.

The council changed hands in May, with the Labour administration replaced by a Tory/LibDem coalition, so this election won’t be about tactical voting but simply about who people want to represent them. And the people in Kentish Town are lovely, with a strong social conscience and very green (with a small g at least). They may very well want their third councillor to be an independent voice that keeps the coalition on their toes.

Winning will take a lot of hard work though. Outwitting the freakishly organised LibDem election machine will involve speaking to as many voters as possible on the doorstep, and competing with the implausible number of leaflets they will put out during the campaign. I dread to think of the amount of paper that will pass through my flat (our HQ) during the next six weeks. It’s all recycled, and is even printed with vegetable inks these days, but it still feels a bit weird as a Green to be creating this much recycling.

Local election campaigns throw up a few dilemmas like this. But there isn’t any effective way to reach the electorate other than to put leaflets through their doors, and it’s clear from speaking to people that our credibility depends on dropping enough of our messages through their letterboxes.

The other quandary that rears its head at these times is what to do about those ‘no junk mail’ notices. There were some fascinating discussions on the Green email lists in the run-up to May on this subject. Some of us argue simply that election leaflets are not junk mail at all but essential to the democratic process.

Fair enough, but then you can lose your nerve when you get an email from a voter who is terribly annoyed at being leafleted ‘by the Green Party of all people’ when their ‘no junk mail’ sticker has been put up for virtuous ecological reasons. There has been a new rash of these stickers going up lately, provided by the Recycle Now campaign, and this makes things particularly tricky for us. Surely people who respond to a recycling drive are more likely to be Green voters? Ignoring these letterboxes feels like a real waste.

Oh dear, what to do? Perhaps we should just rely on our local paper, the Camden New Journal, which covers council business with as much fascination as the nationals cover the shenanigans at Westminster. When delivering in my street the other day, I discovered my favourite hand-made notice on one of the doors: ‘No junk mail,’ it said, followed by, ‘NB the Camden New Journal is NOT junk mail!’ Well said. Now I just have to persuade them to add to it, ‘and Green Party newsletters’.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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.