Harriet Harman, Labour's acting leader, has caused a storm with her remarks on welfare. Photo: Getty Images
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Harriet Harman's right: Labour has to offer an alternative, not just opposition

Harriet Harman has thrown down a gauntlet. Here's how I'd pick it up, says Stella Creasy. 

Harriet Harman has thrown down the gauntlet– to do more than be angry about George Osborne’s choices. She has a point. The public need more than an analysis of the damage he’s doing – or despair that as we are out of office we cannot define what we think is fair until 2020. To win we have to be a government in waiting, prepared not only to make difficult but also different decisions about Britain’s future. 

As deputy leader I would help us ensure we are not just an opposition, but an alternative. We do not have to wait until the next election to start. It is right to ensure employers pay a proper living wage and to support apprenticeships. It is also right we balance the national books- every penny we pay on debt repayments is money we could invest in public services. But increasing inequality will do nothing to help our economy or our society- making it harder, not easier for people to succeed is a costly mistake this Chancellor fails to recognise.  Currently Osborne plans to cut tax credits for those working hard but in low paid and insecure jobs. Rightly, many worry this will lead to an increase in child poverty. Cutting tax credits when our economic recovery is predicated on consumer spending rather than increasing productivity also risks plunging not only families into debt, but our national finances back into a tailspin. 

Whilst this government has a majority, it does not have the monopoly on the options– the value of the parliamentary process is that by our amendments and our arguments we can show how our alternative reforms would instead deliver fairness and prosperity for all. 

So what shape could our agenda take? Previously, Osborne made big play of closing the loophole exempting tax haven companies and other non-residents from capital gains tax on the sale of residential property. Curiously he left it open for commercial property. Almost nowhere else in the world exempts foreigners from tax on selling real estate. This is not only the fair thing to do, but also brings us in line with the US, Canada, Australia, and the rest of Europe. Ensuring CGT applies to all sales could save the funds needed to protect tax credits as we move to a higher wage economy. This in turn reduces the need for them in the first place.

There are other loopholes well overdue closing. Managers of private equity funds and some hedge funds receive most of their remuneration as "carried interest". This can run to hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds, but for historic reasons it's taxed as a capital gain at 28 per cent rather than as income at 45 per cent. There's a clear case for equalising the treatment so that fund managers pay the same rate of tax as other high earners. 

The budget also increased the amount of tax relief you could claim for renting out a room, whilst cutting housing benefit for under 21s. Under-25s already make up a third of homelessness and there is a real danger these changes could make things even worse. The Government’s own figures suggest this costs little to implement- doubling the threshold for those who take in a tenant on housing benefit could help reduce the welfare bill by saving us money in our overheated private rental sector. So too overpayments within the tax credit system cost us £5.6bn. Using credit referencing before someone applies could save money, debt collection agency fees and heartache for many asked to repay mistakenly paid funds at a later date.

Finally, many focus on inheritance tax, as increasingly it is paid by the middle classes and avoided by the wealthy. Yet last year the National Audit Office identified that the biggest loophole is "business property relief". If you're seriously wealthy, and your wealth is in a trading business, BPR can help you escape inheritance tax altogether. It's supposed to help small businesses, but the use of this exemption has been rising at an astonishing rate – 50% since 2008 and much faster than the value of inheritance tax actually paid. Last year it cost £565m - restricting it to small businesses could save enough to ensure those with larger families were not penalised by tax credit changes.

These are just some examples of how Labour can tell a different story about the choices to be made on tax and benefits –where to save, how to spend and how our choices are fairer and socially just. That’s why it is right the next leader is given support to define the combination of proposals we put forward. But so too, it shows we don’t have to be stuck shouting ‘trap’ when faced with brutal Conservative plans. Opposing legislation without using the potential of public scrutiny misses our chance to use parliament to fight back. By putting forward our ideas and using the coming months to campaign for what we offer- support for those who work hard and protection for the most vulnerable to get Britain on track- we can put Osborne on the spot instead.  Let’s not wait until 2020 to show we are a government in waiting- let's get cracking now. 

 Stella Creasy is standing for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party www.stellacreasy.org.uk

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.