Former Lib Dem minister Jeremy Brown speaks in New Delhi on February 16, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jeremy Browne's manifesto would be electoral suicide for the Lib Dems

Policies such as cutting the top rate of tax, reducing NHS spending and introducing for-profit free schools are politically toxic. 

Jeremy Browne has long distinguished himself as the most ardent champion of the free market on the Lib Dem benches. But even by his standards, the manifesto outlined in his new book Race Plan (subtitled "An authentic plan to get Britain fit for 'The Global Race'") is strikingly radical. The former Home Office minister calls for the establishment of for-profit free schools and parent vouchers, for an end to the ring-fencing of the NHS budget and the possible introduction of patient charges, for a cut in the top rate of tax from 45p to 40p, for the creation of a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary ("Boris island") and for a reduction in the number of police forces in England and Wales from 43 to as few as 10. 

He tells the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan: "The government has allowed itself to default into timidity. I’m of the view that the most credible answer to the question 'How does Britain deal more confidently with global risk?' is unbridled, unambiguous, authentic liberalism." And, in a swipe at Nick Clegg, the man who sacked him last year, he adds: "We are telling the voters that we offer either diluted socialism or diluted conservatism. We are the diluting agent. The party shows resilience and fortitude, given the battering we have had. But we have defaulted, instead to trying to cause the least offence to the most people. We have sold ourselves as a brake in government, rather than an accelerator."

Browne's philosophical rigour might be admirable, but it's worth noting just how disastrous it would be for the Lib Dems to embrace his proposals. Far from wanting the top rate to be cut to 40p, most voters (68 per cent) support a 50p rate, while 48 per cent favour a 60p rate. As George Osborne learned to his cost, cutting taxes for the top 1 per cent a time of austerity is politically toxic. It's one reason why the normally mild Danny Alexander was moved to declare that the rate would be reduced to 40p "over my dead body". 

The Tories have, however, been smart enough to recognise that no government with an interest in self-preservation cuts the NHS (accurately described by Nigel Lawson as "the closest thing the English people have to a religion"). As a ComRes/ITV News poll found last year, health is the most popular spending area among voters. Just 5 per cent obelieve the NHS budget should be reduced and 71 per cent believe it should be increased - and with good reason. 

Owing to the above-average rate of health inflation (most notably the cost of new drugs and medical equipment), the NHS requires real-terms rises just to stand still. As a recent Social Market Foundation paper noted, "A ‘flat real’ settlement for the NHS is not what it sounds like since it is defined with reference to an irrelevant price index. To keep up with rising input costs, growing demand, and the public’s expectations for an adequate healthcare system, growth in spending on health has historically outstripped GDP growth." 

By historic standards, the NHS is undergoing austerity. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the current Spending Review it will rise by an average of just 0.5 per cent. As a result, in the words of the SMF, there has been "an effective cut of £16bn from the health budget in terms of what patients expect the NHS to deliver". Should the NHS receive flat real settlements for the three years from 2015-16, this cut will increase to £34bn or 23 per cent.

Browne's education proposals would be similarly toxic. A YouGov poll last year, for instance, found that 84 per cent of parents oppose for-profit free schools with just six per cent in favour. The marketisation of education would do even more to alienate the kind of Lib Dem voters who keep a voodoo doll of Michael Gove by their beds. 

Outside of the City of London, there is almost no appetite for the turbo Thatcherism advocated by Browne. As I’ve noted before, if Ed Miliband is a "socialist", so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (putting them to the left of the Labour leader).

Browne might contend that only his vision can save Britain from inexorable decline, but he should not delude himself that he would ever win a mandate for it. 

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.