Ed Miliband and David Cameron during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, on June 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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There's no gratitude in politics - why the recovery might not save the Tories

If the debate moves on to more fertile Labour territory such as public services the Conservatives will likely struggle.

One of the big political surprises in Britain’s history came less than two months after VE Day, when the triumphant war leader, Winston Churchill, ran for re-election against the cerebral and relatively uncharismatic Clement Attlee. Churchill was defeated in a landslide. Historians mostly agree that whilst Churchill’s wartime record was respected, voters, and particularly returning soldiers, trusted Attlee’s Labour Party to provide the jobs, healthcare and welfare state that would make the peace worth living in. The UK’s recent struggles have been economic. But just as the ungrateful voters of 1945 turfed out Churchill, so the voters of 2015 could do the same to their own (economic) saviours, David Cameron and George Osborne.

The UK’s recovery is now in its second year, but it has yet to have a significant effect on the Conservatives’ popularity: in the latest poll their share is 28 per cent, 4 per cnet behind the Labour Party, which has maintained a similar lead since May 2013. One potential explanation is the stagnation in the real incomes of voters, as inflation has outstripped wage growth. That trend looks to be coming to an end, however, potentially ushering in a year of real wage growth coupled with a booming housing market, which could lead many voters to feel wealthier than at any point since the last election.

That will likely aid the Conservatives’ standing heading into 2015 and the polls are likely to narrow (as they do in the run-up to most general elections). But perhaps the Conservatives should be careful what they wish for. James Carville’s oft-misquoted campaign memo, "the economy, stupid", does not refer to an immutable law of politics. The economy is often the most important issue in elections, but by no means always. Indeed, when the economy was doing well, as it was in the UK from '96 -'07, other issues like healthcare and education took on the greatest salience (Chart 5).

Economic optimism in the UK is now at its highest level since records began in 1979. The salience of the economy as an issue is falling fast, whilst that of the NHS and education, Labour’s strongest suits, is rising. The significant lead the Conservative Party has on economic management looks likely to endure in the absence of an unforeseen downturn before the next election. But it also looks likely to become less important to the result.

The big battles of the next election will be fought over control of the agenda. If the health of the economy continues to fade as an issue and the debate moves on to more fertile Labour territory like the provision of public services then the Conservatives will likely struggle to overtake Ed Miliband’s party. The latest debacle over extremism in schools is just the kind of distraction that plays into Labour’s hands and just the kind the Tories have been instructed by campaign manager Lynton Crosby to avoid.

The saving graces for the Conservatives have long been assumed to be Ed Miliband’s weak personal brand and his party’s lingering association with economic failure. Yet the Conservatives’ own vulnerabilities look just as concerning. Cameron’s personal brand is strong but his party's remains stubbornly off-putting to much of the electorate. Forty per cent say they would never vote Conservative against 33 per cent who would not vote Labour. The Conservatives face a huge disadvantage under the current electoral system, which could see Labour become the largest party even if it loses the popular vote by up to 3 per cent. And of course there’s Ukip, which, while it takes votes from all parties, stands to be significantly more damaging to the Conservatives than to anyone else.

The European elections (where Ukip came first) probably showed the crest of the party’s popularity, at least for the next year or so, but the local elections, held on the same day, indicated that the party could have a disruptive effect in a variety of key swing seats, particularly in Essex and Thurrock, where Labour must win seats to become the biggest party.

A "super poll" of swing constituencies commissioned by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft just before the local elections indicated that high Ukip shares in areas like Thurrock would gift those seats to Labour, resulting in a majority for the party of 83. It should be noted, however, that a similar poll held in 2009 projected a Conservative majority of 70 which never materialised.

So what to conclude? More positive economic news should benefit the Conservatives, but could well prove a double-edged blade if voters conclude that it’s safe to switch to the party they prefer with cherished public services. Between now and the election, the Conservatives will do all they can to ensure the economy remains foremost in people’s minds, which is why the chart below is a key one to watch. If Labour can succeed in shifting the debate into other areas, as it previously accomplished with its proposal to freeze energy prices, then David Cameron may soon find himself joining the ranks of respected ex-prime ministers.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent investment consultancy

Chart 5: Most important issues facing the UK

Source: ASR Ltd. / Ipsos Mori

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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.