PMQs review: Miliband needs to offer more than lists of statistics

The danger for Miliband is that his "cost-of-living" attack will be blunted as the economic recovery accelerates. Labour must offer a bigger vision.

In his final question at today's PMQs (the last of the year), Ed Miliband derided David Cameron for reeling off "lists of statistics" (1.2 million more people in work, 24 million people out of tax, a record 30 million people in employment and so on), rather than answering his questions. The line prompted jeers from Tory MPs because Miliband had spent much of the session highlighting his own stats of choice: energy bills up by £70, childcare costs up by £300, average wages down by £364.

All were designed to reinforce Labour's message that Cameron is presiding over a "cost-of-living crisis" but today's session highlighted the danger for Miliband in relying on this line of attack. With the economy growing at its fastest rate since the crisis and unemployment falling rapidly, Cameron will be able to point to ever more progress as the election draws closer. Wages will likely start rising faster than inflation next year, the UK economy will pass its pre-recession peak and employment will continue to surge.

The risk for Labour is that just as its "too far, too fast" critique of the cuts lost potency after growth returned (polls show that voters now believe cuts are good for the economy), so its "cost-of-living" attack will weaken as the public begin to feel the benefits of the recovery. Having been forced to retire his 'flatlining' hand gesture, Ed Balls may soon be forced to do the same with his new 'finger down' (in reference to the fall in living standards). Rather than trying to win a stats war with Cameron, Miliband need to focus on fleshing out his vision of a different kind of economy and a more equal society. It is this that will convince voters that Labour represents a genuine alternative, regardless of the progress Cameron can point to.

The session was also notable for a new attempt by Cameron to drive a wedge between Miliband and Balls. He declared at one point: "Ah – we’ve got a new hand gesture from the shadow chancellor! I’d have thought after today’s briefing in the papers the hand gesture from the shadow chancellor would be 'bye bye' – you don’t need it to be Christmas to know you’re sitting next to a turkey!" The political logic behind these constant attacks is that the more the Tories deride Balls, the harder it becomes for Miliband to move him should he decide that Labour needs a new messenger as well as a new message. But while Miliband is undoubtedly ruthless enough to move Balls, the odds are still on him remaining shadow chancellor until the election.

The other significant moment came when Cameron was asked about allegations that Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers broke the ministerial code while at Transport by meeting a lobbyist campaigning for a £400m railway depot in Hertfordshire. He replied by saying that he had seen a copy of the cabinet secretary's response and that it would be published "in the next few days". With parliament breaking up for recess tomorrow, Labour is now demanding that the findings are published "immediately".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.