The Davos elite worry about inequality - but don't expect them to act

Turkeys won't vote for Christmas and Google won’t vote to pay its taxes either.

This week saw energy giant SSE announce a 8.8 per cent hike in profits, to £1.5bn. For its millions of customers who faced a price increase of 8.2 per cent just two months ago, what better demonstration could there be of the broken nature of our energy market? What better example of untrammelled corporate rent-seeking than SSE’s well paid executives and shareholders receiving bumper payouts, while millions of customers struggle to pay bills that only ever go up, not down?

This show of corporate power is currently on display on a bigger scale in Davos, and surely energy customers in Britain won’t fail to spot the irony of the Masters of the Universe, gathered on their Swiss mountaintop, deciding that income inequality is the greatest threat we face today. How apt that these standard bearers for the wealthiest 1 per cent should choose their annual convention for Corporate Boosterism to wake up to the iniquity of our gross, global inequity. And fitting, too, that it should be at Davos, where Thomas Mann imagined the products of an earlier, gilded age of capital and reflected on the sickness of their modernity, and the conflict that hung over it.

But hold the hollow laughter for a moment, because the sight of plutocrats wringing their hands ought to be a wake up to politics and the people we represent. They are right to worry that the accelerating accumulation of wealth and power in ever fewer hands is fuelling instability between nations and hardening divisions within them. When those divides can be captured as graphically as Oxfam did this week with the news that the richest 85 people now control more cash and assets than fully half the population of the globe, they are right to be profoundly concerned. A risk index of 85:3.5 billion doesn’t look good on the balance sheet, you see. But the trouble is that the answers to this problem can’t be found on any balance sheet, or with the accountant’s slide-rule. No matter how hard they look, the answer won’t be found by these cosmopolitan capitalists on their magic mountaintop. No, the answer lies with the people looking up from the global valley floor below, and in a politics that speaks for them once more.

Now, perhaps I'm writing them off too soon. Perhaps the modestly-titled World Economic Forum will conclude this weekend with a communique calling for redistribution of wealth from rich to poor? Perhaps they'll propose tax transparency, country by country profit reporting and statutory tax co-ordination between sovereign nation states? Perhaps they'll champion the role of state investment and public research in underpinning private enterprise? Perhaps they'll back a Living Wage, a Tobin tax, trade union membership or call for the return of Glass-Steagall legislation at home and capital controls abroad? Perhaps they'll suggest some means to reverse the relentless acquisition of more by those that have the most? Perhaps. But I doubt it.   

They should, of course, because they are right to be worried that the yawning gulf in wealth and opportunity, across generations, and between class and caste, will jeopardise not just the life chances for billions of our global citizens, but, eventually, their own business model, too. However, they cannot articulate the right prescription because the solutions required are anathema to their merchant code. They limit the flexibility to hire and fire as business needs demand. They constrain the capacity to place shareholder gains and quarterly returns above all else. They raise other values of loyalty and local pride, solidarity and long-term commitment, alongside the purity of the profit-motive, and so dilute its power. They ask rootless and ruthless global markets to accept that there exist social and public goods that should never be commoditised, and local rules that should not be subverted. They ask money to acknowledge that there are spheres of life where it should hold no sway. 

Don't hold your breath. Turkeys won't vote for Christmas and Google won’t vote to pay its taxes either. The only answer is a politics which takes on vested interest and bends it to the people’s will. A politics that takes on the energy companies that are ripping us off, that challenges the banks to serve industry and not themselves, and one that chooses to prioritise the hard-working majority, not protect a privileged minority.

That’s not a politics or a morality that you are likely to find in the rarefied air of Davos's smoke-free seminar rooms or in Tory Party HQ. But it is the politics that we need here in Britain and that we need to project from our small island to the globalised world beyond. It’s a One Nation Labour politics. And Ed Miliband will deliver it when he wins power for the people in 2015.

David Cameron answers questions after his address to The World Economic Forum in Davos earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

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.