Tory MPs' bad advice to Osborne: don't cut taxes for the poor

Those Tories calling for an increase in the 40p tax threshold should remember that only the top 14 per cent of earners pay the rate.

After Nick Clegg's call for a "workers' bonus" in the form of a £500 increase in the income tax threshold to £10,500 (a suggestion likely to be taken up by George Osborne), the Free Enterprise Group of Tory MPs have issued their own demands to the Chancellor. 

In today's Times, Dominic Raab, one of the group's leading members, rightly notes that Clegg's proposal would not benefit the five million lowest-earners who do not pay income tax. But rather than suggesting progressive alternatives such as cutting VAT, or raising the National Insurance threshold (which currently stands at £7,748), he and others argue for tax cuts to be focused on "the middle classes". 

Nick de Bois comments: "If there’s going to be any reduction in the burden of taxation in the Budget, we should be looking at the squeezed middle, by raising the threshold into which people start paying the higher rate of tax. " Another Tory MP, Steve Barclay says: "We also need to be clear on what delivers the best bang for the buck, which includes not losing sight of the squeezed middle. It seems too much of the tax cutting is focused solely on those at the lowest end of the earnings spectrum."

But while living standards are falling across the income scale, it's worth noting that those who earn enough to pay the 40p tax rate (£41,451) are in the top 14 per cent of earners. It's those who earn around the median full-time salary of £26,500 who are the real squeezed middle. For both political and economic reasons, it makes sense to target tax cuts on the bottom half of the income scale. The poor are more likely to spend, rather than save, any gains they receive (stimulating the economy as a result) and the greatest challenge facing the Tories is need to win over this group, a point well made by Blue Collar modernisers such as Robert Halfon and Guy Opperman. 

The Tories should also be wary of Raab's call to "halve the number of Whitehall departments, strictly enforce public sector pay limits and introduce a three-year cash freeze on non-pension benefits." 

In his most recent Budget, George Osborne extended the 1% cap on public sector pay increases until 2015-16, entailing further real-terms cuts for workers. But with the return of growth, such austerity will become harder to justify; voters will want their share of an expanding cake.

If the Tories want to win over the voters they will need to remain the largest party in 2015, they would be wise to offer some relief to the public sector. As Renewal, the Conservative group aimed at broadening the party's appeal among working class, northern and ethnic minority voters, has noted, the majority of Tory target seats have a higher than average share of public sector workers, including 60% of Labour-held targets and half of the top 20 Lib Dem-held targets. While the Tories are likely to pledge to cut taxes for all workers, in the form of a £12,500 personal allowance, they should also consider easing the squeeze on the public sector.

George Osborne delivers a speech at Peking University in Beijing on October 14, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of 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.