Equality Street Blues for Generations Social Reformers Have Fought for a Level Playing- Field, but What Does That Mean in Britain Today?

By Lacey, Hester | The Independent (London, England), March 1, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Equality Street Blues for Generations Social Reformers Have Fought for a Level Playing- Field, but What Does That Mean in Britain Today?


Lacey, Hester, The Independent (London, England)


A NEW law is being proposed in Austria: that men and women do equal shares of the housework. This has caused considerable excitement among those who envisage an implacable government- sponsored Harpic Hit Squad, ready to swoop in and force dusters and brushes into the hands of unwilling men. The reality is rather less thrilling: the law will simply state that, in theory, men and women should take equal responsibility for housework and there will be no active enforcement. Still, Austria has made a clear statement of the egalitarian principle by making the allocation of domestic tasks the subject of legislation.

But does it make that much difference, really, who polishes the taps? Not for Karen Cotter, 30, bringing up two small children on her own in a two-bedroom flat in south-east London. She has to do the lot because there isn't anyone else. "My ex-husband is in the States and he certainly doesn't drop in to do the hoovering. But housework is hardly my priority when I think about equality. I've got a good degree in psychology, but with two toddlers I can't get out to work. I don't even own the flat I live in - most of my contemporaries are well away with careers and mortgages." She is, she says, scraping by without things other people take for granted - nice clothes, holidays, a car. "Even when the children eventually go to school full-time, I'll be so behind I don't think I'll ever catch up. Equality for me would mean the chance to do as well as my friends.

A few miles away, in a smart, four-bed terraced home, housework is not an issue for James and Cathy Yates. The cleaner does it. James, 33, runs his own printing business and Cathy, 30, also works full- time, as a personnel officer. Between them, they earn around pounds 80,000 per year. "We don't feel ashamed of what we have, we work hard for it," says Cathy. "Equality is what we pay our taxes for - we wouldn't mind paying more if we knew that it was going on helping things like the NHS or schools." LIKE happiness, equality has always meant different things to different people. Traditionally, Labour has concentrated on equality of outcome - redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor via taxes, welfare and benefits. Since New Labour has moved away from the explicit commitment to redistribution entailed in the old Clause IV of its constitution, Gordon Brown has formulated an alternative understanding of equality as a "level playing field" of opportunity, to be achieved through education and training. Roy Hattersley claims New Labour has "abandoned the hope of equality".

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