Book review: The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis by Mike Berry

Book review: The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis by Mike Berry
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 November 2019

COMING out of the Glasgow Media Group tradition, Dr Mike Berry from the School of Journalism at Cardiff University has written a quietly devastating academic examination of the impact of the British print and broadcast media on public knowledge and understanding of the 2008 financial crisis.

Focusing on the October 2008 bank bailouts and debates about the national deficit and austerity circa 2009, Berry conducted content analysis, focus groups with the public and interviewed senior journalists producing the news.

With the public’s interest in economic and business news at unprecedented levels in 2008, he found the media “functioned to channel the very real public anger… into largely symbolic issues” while leaving the deep structural faults in Britain’s financial system “largely unexamined.” In particular he notes “City voices dominated core coverage of the [partial] bank nationalisations” on the BBC Today programme.

Similarly, he observed the media “constructed – to varying degrees – a narrative that the deficit represented a major economic threat which necessitated quick and sharp cuts to the welfare state.” Austerity was largely presented as inevitable, with his sample of BBC News at Ten’s output showing no space was given to economists, academics, unions or civil society actors “who might have advocated countercyclical or anti-austerity policies.”

Dismayingly, many of the participants in the focus groups said immigrants and asylum seekers were a primary reason for the rise in public debt caused by the recession created by the financial crisis – an outcome of decades-long misreporting of public spending, welfare and immigration by large sections of the media, Berry argues.

Contrary to the “dominant strand of thinking in both academic and lay circles that the media have relatively little influence” on public attitudes, Berry concludes the media had a “significant impact” on public opinion during the banking crisis and deficit debates. The repercussions of this manufactured ignorance have been immense, ultimately leading to a widespread acceptance of austerity that has devastated large swathes of the country, playing a key role in the 2010 and 2015 elections, the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader.

Helpfully, Berry ends with a few tips for any Labour government interested in significantly increasing public spending, which will almost certainly incur the wrath of influential sections of the media: careful monitoring of public opinion combined with “a proactive and robust system of rebuttal” and utilisation of the mass membership to present the most effective arguments to the general public.

Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand post-crash Britain.

The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis is published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced £22.99.

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 October 2019

Directed by Gavin Hood and starring Keira Knightley, new film Official Secrets tells the story of Katharine Gun’s brave actions to try to stop the illegal US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Working as a translator at the secretive intelligence organisation Government Communications Headquarters (GHCQ) in Cheltenham, on 31 January 2003 the then 28-year old Gun was copied in to an email from Frank Koza at the US National Security Agency (NSA). With the US and UK facing strong opposition at the United Nations to its aggressive stance on Iraq, Koza explained how the NSA was mounting a ‘dirty tricks‘ operation to spy on members of the UN Security Council, in an attempt to gain support for an invasion, and were looking for support from GCHQ.

Increasingly concerned about the rush to war, Gun leaked the memo to journalist Yvonne Ridley, who passed it onto the Observer‘s Martin Bright. It was published in the paper on 2 March 2003, seventeen days before the invasion. Gun was soon taken into police custody and charged under the Official Secrets Act, though the government mysteriously dropped the case the day before her trial was to start.

US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War in 1971, proclaimed Gun’s actions the “most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.”

“It was the first leak that was pre-emptive. Most leaks are after the event“, Gun told me, when I interviewed her for the Morning Star in 2008.

Gun’s whistleblowing likely strengthened the case against the US and UK at the UN – the Security Council did not authorise the invasion. The collapse of her trial also triggered then International Development Secretary Clare Short to publicly note British security services spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s office in the run up to the Iraq war.

Aswell as telling Gun’s story, the film focuses on how the Observer dealt with receiving the leaked memo – a fascinating story also told by investigative journalist Nick Davies in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. With the newspaper taking a pro-war stance under Editor Roger Alton and Political Editor Kamal Ahmed, Davies shows there was a crucial delay in reporting on the memo.

One reason for this was “the ‘circle of resistance’ to anti-war stories”, he writes. Ahmed, who was very close to Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell and was “an open advocate” for the government’s position on Iraq, was “running round the office going ‘Hitler diaries, Hitler diaries’”, according to one source.

“If we had gone with it two or three weeks earlier, it might have made a difference”, one frustrated Observer journalist told Davies. “There was an ideological resistance to it. It could have stopped the war.”

There are interesting similarities between these tumultuous events and the activities of the intelligence services and the media in the successive 16 years.

The US and UK, it seems, continue to spy on the United Nations and other international organisations. Reporting on documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, in December 2013 the New York Times revealed “more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years”, including “multiple United Nations Missions in Geneva” such as UNICEF and the United National Disarmament Research. In his must-read 2014 book about Snowden’s leaks, No Place To Hide, Glenn Greenwald highlights how a document from 2010 shows the US spied on eight members of the Security Council regarding resolutions on Iran. “The espionage gave the US goverment valuable information about those countries’ voting intentions, giving Washington an edge when talking to other members of the Security Council”, Greenwald notes.

Regarding the UK, “in the mainstream, the official view is that the British government provide enduring support to the UN”, historian Mark Curtis notes in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. “The opposite is true: it is clear from the historical record that the UN has traditionally been seen as a major threat.”

Curtis continues: “For the past 50 years, the essence of British strategy has been to ensure the UN’s failure to prevent or condemn Britain’s, or its allies’, acts of aggression.”

Secret documents published by Wikileaks in 2015 show “Britain conducted secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN human rights council (UNHRC)”, according to the Guardian. The Independent in 2017 and the Guardian in 2016 also reported the UK had blocked a UN inquiry into Saudi war crimes in Yemen. In March of this year the Guardian reported the UK was set to “oppose motions criticising rights abuses [by Israel] in the West Bank and Gaza that are brought to the UN’s human rights council”.

And, like in 2003, the liberal media continue to be hugely comprised when it comes to reporting on the actions of the US and UK intelligence services.

As one of the main outlets for Snowden’s leaks, the Guardian – seen as the most anti-establishment national newspaper by many – came under intense pressure from the UK government, Matt Kennard and Curtis set out in their recent Daily Maverick long read.

This coercion has effectively neutralised the paper’s adversarial reporting of the ‘security state’, they argue. Their reporting is based on minutes from the Ministry of Defence-run Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, AKA the D-Notice Committee, which defines its purpose as preventing “inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations”.

In July 2013, six weeks after the first Snowden leaks were published, GCHQ officials visited the Guardian’s offices in King’s Cross, London to oversee the destruction of laptops containing the Snowden documents. Though the action was completely symbolic (the documents were also stored outside of the UK, presumably in the Guardian’s US office) something changed.

“The Guardian had begun to seek and accept D-Notice advice not to publish certain highly sensitive details and since then the dialogue [with the committee] had been reasonable and improving”, the D-Notice Committee minutes for November 2013 noted. Incredibly the Guardian journalist who had helped to destroy the laptops – Deputy Editor Paul Johnson – took a seat on the D-Notice Committee itself, attending from 2014 to 2018.

Exclusive Guardian interviews with the heads of MI6 and MI5 followed, with veteran, often critical ‘national security’ journalists – David Leigh, Richard Norton-Taylor, Ewen MacAskill and Ian Cobain – replaced by less-experienced and knowledgeable reporters under current editor Katherine Viner. “It seems they’ve got rid of everyone who seemed to cover the security services and military in an adversarial way”, a Guardian journalist told Kennard and Curtis.

And Kamal Ahmad, whose ‘journalism’ in 2002-3 Davies argues “meant Observer readers were slowly soaked in disinformation” about Iraq? Following a stint as the BBC’s Economic Editor, he is now Editorial Director at the corporation, where he is “responsible for shaping the BBC’s future editorial strategy, focusing on storytelling and explanatory journalism”.

One important lesson to come out of Gun’s extraordinary story is the importance of inspiration. Gun, for example, has explained that in the period before she leaked the NSA memo she read two books – War Plan Iraq by Peace News Editor Milan Rai and Target Iraq by Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich – which convinced her there was no case for war. And Snowden himself has said he was inspired to leak the NSA documents after watching The Most Dangerous Man in America, the 2009 documentary about Ellsberg.

So maybe, just maybe, the next important whistleblower will be sitting next to you in the cinema when you go and see Official Secrets.

Official Secrets is in cinemas from 18 October 2019.

What you need to know about Jo Swinson’s voting record

What you need to know about Jo Swinson’s voting record
by Ian Sinclair

2 November 2019

Over the coming weeks of the general election campaign Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, will make many promises. Therefore, it is important to see what her voting record has been in parliament.

The key take away is Swinson, as part of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government between 2010 and 2015, played a central role in implementing austerity – a set of policies linked to 120,000 excess deaths in England, according to a studied published in the peer-reviewed journal BMJ in 2017, and 130,000 preventable deaths, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2019. “In terms of her voting record, Swinson is no different on paper from the Conservative ministers of the time”, the New Statesman’s Anoosh Chakelian noted in July 2019.

  • Between 2009 and 2011 Swinson “generally voted for the privatisation of Royal Mail”
  • Instead of scrapping fees, as the Lib Dems promised in the 2010 general election campaign, in December 2010 Swinson voted in support of trebling of university costs to £9,000 a year.
  • In January 2011 Swinson voted in favour of scrapping the education maintenance allowance (EMA) in England.
  • In 2011 Swinson voted for UK military action in Libya, a NATO-led intervention, the result of which was “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa”, according to a 2016 House of Commons report.
  • Swinson “almost always voted for academy schools”.
  • In 2011 Swinson “consistently voted for selling England’s state owned forests”.
  • Between 2011 and 2012 Swinson “consistently voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability”.
  • Swinson supported the Coalition Government’s Workfare programme, the scheme in which people on Jobseekers Allowance are forced to carry out unpaid work in order to keep receiving their benefits.
  • In 2013 Swinson “consistently voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices”.
  • Between 2012 and 2013 Swinson “consistently voted against slowing the rise in rail fares”.
  • In December 2014 Swinson voted in favour of housing benefit penalties for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (AKA the Bedroom Tax).
  • Between 2011 and 2014 Swinson “generally voted for restricting the scope of legal aid”.
  • Between 2010 and 2015 Swinson “almost always voted for reducing the rate of corporation tax”.
  • Between 2011 and 2015 Swinson “generally voted against a banker’s bonus tax”.
  • Between 2012 and 2015 Swinson “consistently voted against increasing the tax rate applied to income over £150,000”.
  • In 2015 Swinson “generally voted against greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract shale gas”.
  • Between 2011 and 2018 Swinson “generally voted against financial incentives for low carbon emission electricity generation methods”.
  • Between 2010 and 2019 “Swinson “generally voted for reducing central government funding of local government”.

‘Can you vote for Jo Swinson if you oppose austerity?’, was the title to Chakelian’s article. Surely this should read ‘Can you vote for Jo Swinson if you have an ounce of humanity?’

Book review. Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal

Book review. Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2019

Written by University of Cambridge Reader Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire confronts the now infamous 2014 YouGov poll which found 59 percent of Britons thought the British empire was “something to be proud of”.

Resistance to empire was frequent, she notes, with connections formed between critics of imperialism based in the UK and rebels in the colonies. Furthermore, she argues a form of “reverse tutelage” took place, with insurgents and the movements they led shaping the discussion back in the UK: “the resistance of the periphery helped radicalise sections of the metropole.”

Rather than a comprehensive narrative history of this opposition, the book focusses on specific, influential crises, with Gopal conducting close analytical readings of primary sources, including speeches, pamphlets, books and newspaper reports. The case studies range from the well-known (the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya) to largely forgotten conflicts – in Britain at least – such as the 1865 revolt in Morant Bay, Jamaica and the British invasion of Egypt in 1882. Overlaying this are fascinating portraits of dissidents like Chartist Ernest Jones, Wilfred Blunt, Communist MP Shapurji Saklatvala and anti-war activist Fenner Brockway.

With over 90 pages of references and a huge bibliography, Insurgent Empire is a tour de force likely to shape the debate on empire for years to come. However, its academic tone, especially in the introduction, means peace and anti-imperialism activists may not find it the most accessible or directly useful read.

Despite this, I think it’s an important activist resource for at least three reasons. First, by showcasing contemporary critics of British colonialism it demolishes the apologist argument that contemporary critics are judging the British empire by 21st century moral standards.

Second, the book highlights episodes which shows establishment propaganda today has a long historical pedigree. For example, Gopal highlights how prior to the British invasion, the British “press and official sources had taken a virulent pleasure in painting [leading Egyptian nationalist] Urabi, as a ‘military oppressor’ and ‘dictator’”. Elsewhere a 1907 article from Indian philosopher Aurobondo Ghose is cited, noting how the English are happy to hear tales of Russian tyranny but seem impervious to hearing “home truths about England’s dominion in Hindusthan.”

Most of all, as Gopal concludes, “these lines of resistance and genealogies of dissent” will “give heart and hope to those who look toward a more fully decolonised future for both Britain and the postcolonial world.”

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal is published by Verso, priced £25.

First we stop London City Airport, then Heathrow

First we stop London city Airport, then Heathrow
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21 August 2019

On a muggy evening last month over 100 people attended a public meeting in a school hall in Wanstead, east London to hear about the proposed expansion of London City Airport (LCY).

Opened in 1987, the airport primarily services business travellers and the City, handling approximately 80,000 flights and 4.8 million passengers in 2018 (there is an annual cap of 111,000 flights).

The airport’s new masterplan proposes a maximum of 151,000 flights and 11 million passengers a year by 2035, and more flights early in the morning and late at night (night flights are not allowed). In addition the airport proposes dropping the weekend break that is currently in place for residents living under the airport’s flight paths – there are no flights from 12:30 on Saturdays to 12:30 on Sundays.

These would be “modest changes”, said Sean Bashforth, Director of Quod, LCY’s planning advisors since 2006. “We are committing to no noisier aircraft than fly at the moment.”

This attempt to placate opposition mirrors the airport’s slick public relations campaign, which is full of assurances about the expansion. “This is not going to be significant or uncontrolled growth”, Robert Sinclair, Chief Executive of LCY, told the BBC recently. “It will be done in a way that is very, very sustainable and responsible, and incremental.”

In contrast, John Stewart, Chair of HACAN East, a campaign group giving a voice to residents impacted by the airport, told the meeting “City Airport’s assurances in the past have not been good”.

“We were told it would be a small airport” when it was first built, he explained. “Then a series of planning applications went through and it got bigger and bigger, so the size of the airport now is a totally different beast to the one that was promised… I think that’s why there is mistrust and there is anxiety about the future”.

The proposed expansion would likely lead to nearly double the number of flights at the airport. “The density of the population around London City exceeds that of any other airport in the UK”, noted a briefing paper from HACAN East. Therefore, LCY “impacts more people than any UK airport bar Heathrow and Manchester”, with 74,000 people living within its “noise zone”, as defined by the EU.

“Major studies and reviews have concluded that aircraft noise is negatively affecting health and quality of life”, a 2016 report from the NGO Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) observed. “Exposure to aircraft noise can lead to short-term responses such as sleep disturbance, annoyance, and impairment of learning in children, and long-term exposure is associated with increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, stroke and dementia.”

“There is evidence to suggest that aircraft noise may also lead to long-term mental health issues”, the AEF added.

Speaking at the meeting John Cryer, Labour MP for Leyton and Wanstead, said he has written to the government asking for an inquiry into the effects of air and noise pollution on communities living close to airports: “There has never been a government inquiry into this and I think it’s about time that we had that.”

In addition to noise levels, climate change is increasingly a concern for many people. In April the Guardian noted “Worldwide, aviation is one of the fastest growing sectors for greenhouse gas emissions, which increased by 76.1% between 1990 and 2012, according to the UN’s climate body.” Paying lip-service to the ongoing shift in public opinion on climate change engendered by Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the student climate strikes, Liam McKay, the Director of Corporate Affairs at LCY, told the meeting “Carbon is very important… The airport is committed to being net-zero by 2050”.

A young woman in the audience wasn’t impressed. “I am a Mum. I’m going to have two little girls who are going to be living in this country and this world in 70, 80, 100 years’ time. And you are talking about continuing to expand the ruination of our environment.” To applause she directly asked the representatives from LCA “Do you have children? Do you care about what happens to their future?”

And LCY’s impressive-sounding commitment to be “net-zero by 2050”? Turns out this refers to the airport estate itself – not the hundreds of thousands of flights in and out of the airport, of course.

There are indications the government is waking up to aviation’s key role in exacerbating the climate crisis. In its report recommending the adoption of a net-zero carbon target by 2050, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) raises the possibility of constraining aviation demand, noting they plan to write to the government about “its approach to aviation” later this year.

Similarly in May 2019 the BBC News website reported that a senior civil servant from the Department of Transport had said it may be necessary to review the UK’s expected aviation growth in light of the CCC’s report.

Interviewed by the Morning Star earlier this month, Dr Declan Finney, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds, and Dr Giulio Mattioli, a research associate at TU-Dortmund in Germany, were blunter in their analysis: “expanding airports is not a neutral technical measure, it’s a political choice with important consequences. And it flies in the face of the Climate Emergency declaration passed by the House of Commons.”

Stewart, as readers may be aware, has form when it comes to opposing airport expansion, having led the campaign which stopped the proposed Third Runway at Heathrow in 2010 – one of the biggest and most important wins for grassroots activism in post-war UK history.

In his inspiring pamphlet Victory Against All The Odds: The Story Of How The Campaign To Stop A Third Runway At Heathrow Was Won, Stewart highlights the central role played by direct action activists – Plane Stupid – in this victory. “As well as dramatizing the issue, it put real pressure on the Government and frightened the construction industry in a way that conventional campaigning on its [own] could not have done”, Stewart explains about the direct action undertaken in the 1990s opposing road building, and why he was so happy when Plane Stupid started campaigning on Heathrow.

On LCY’s proposed expansion, it is possible Stewart will, once again, be joined in his campaign by direct action activists. In a newly published memo discussing XR’s strategy and tactics moving forward, Rupert Read, a member of the group’s political strategy team, discusses focussing on aviation. “Target London City Airport, rather than Heathrow”, he suggests, arguing the fight to stop LCY expansion is “more easily winnable” than stopping Heathrow expansion.

“Because London City is overwhelmingly used by business people and the rich, and offers little benefit to the local community” Read believes “it would be a perfect opportunity to land the message that, while we all have a responsibility to prevent ecocide together, it is big business, the super-rich and the City that bears the heaviest responsibility.”

“If we stopped London City Airport expansion, we could then move onto Heathrow afterwards”, he concludes.

Let’s hope, for the sake of the young woman with two children, local residents and, indeed, the entire planet, that Extinction Rebellion turns its attention to aviation, including the expansion of London City Airport, very soon.

Visit http://www.hacaneast.org.uk for more information about the campaign. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair

Book review. Systems Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response To Environmental Crisis edited by Martin Empson

Book review. Systems Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response To Environmental Crisis edited by Martin Empson
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
2 September 2019

Systems Change Not Climate Change is a collection of eleven essays from members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and other socialist authors.

Writing in the introduction Martin Empson argues the multiple environmental crises which pose an existential threat to humanity – including climate change and biodiversity loss – are caused by “the nature of capitalist society.” Therefore “those who argue that we should change our individual lifestyles – giving up cars or flying, changing to a vegan or vegetarian diet – are missing the point”, he maintains. “We need to challenge the very existence of those fossil fuel corporations and the system that needs them.”

Ian Rappel’s critique of the increasingly neoliberal idea of “natural capital” is thought-provoking, as is Camilla Royle’s discussion of the politics surrounding the concept of the Anthropocene. I was particularly struck by Amy Leather’s point that “nothing sums up the irrationality of capitalism more than” single use plastics – “materials that can last practically forever are used to make products designed to be thrown away.”

As much as the book is a sign the SWP is now making the climate crisis a priority in terms of campaigning it is very welcome.

However, I found myself deeply frustrated by many of the authors’ cult-like reverence for Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Incredibly smart political philosophers they might have been, but how useful are their nineteenth century writings in terms of understanding climate change today? In addition, the book seems to have come out of a closed, small circle of peer review and citation – a huge red flag in serious academic research. For example, Royle’s chapter cites Canadian socialist Ian Angus and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, Judith Orr and Chris Harman from the SWP, and “benefitted from feedback” from Rappel and Empson and the SWP’s Alex Callinicos and Joseph Choonara.

Accordingly, the reader is repeatedly told “we must replace capitalism with a socialist system” to solve the climate and environmental crises. How this admirable goal sits with the March 2019 statement from the United Nations explaining the world has “just over a decade… to stop irreversible damage from climate change”, and experts warning deep emissions cuts need to happen in the next few years, is never explored. Indeed, this incredibly short timescale strongly suggests activists in the UK and beyond will almost certainly have to work out how to force radical action from within the existing capitalist system.

Systems Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response To Environmental Crisis is published by Bookmarks, priced £8.

The persistence of traditional gender norms in housework: interview with Professor Anne McMunn

The persistence of traditional gender norms in housework: interview with Professor Anne McMunn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 August 2019

From the Everyday Sexism Project, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling essays and the #MeToo movement, there has been a huge upsurge in Feminist activism in recent years. However, while the topic of unpaid domestic work – aka housework – was a key concern of the second wave Feminism in the 1970s, it seems to be largely ignored by contemporary mainstream Feminism.

In an attempt to get a handle on the issue, Ian Sinclair asked Anne McMunn, Professor of Social Epidemiology at University College London, about her new co-authored article Gender Divisions of Paid and Unpaid Work in Contemporary UK Couples, published in the journal Work, Employment and Society.

Ian Sinclair: What does the academic evidence tell us about who does unpaid domestic work?

Anne McMunn: Studies from all over the world consistently show that women do much more unpaid domestic work than men. Studies in the UK have also shown that this gender difference really opens up when couples become parents; couples tend to revert to more traditional gender roles after the transition to parenthood and this establishes patterns of behaviour within the household that persist over time. However, as we continue to make progress towards gender equality in the workplace and more people from the ‘Millennial’ generation are starting to form families (Millennial men, in particular say they would like to spend more time with their children), there has been speculation that persistent gender inequality in domestic work may start to decline. In this study we wanted to see if this was the case. We looked at a large study of more than 8,500 contemporary opposite-sex couples from across the UK to see how they share or divide housework, paid employment, and care for children and adults. We used a technique that grouped couples together based on how similar they were in the ways they divided these four types of work between them.

IS: What explanations have researchers given for this disparity?

AM: Explanations for the persistent gender disparity in housework have tended to fall into two broad camps. One takes an economic perspective and argues that women do more housework because they have less economic bargaining power within relationships. This is because women tend to earn less than men as a result of the gender pay gap, but also because mothers in the UK often work part-time as a way of combining employment with parenthood. Some studies show that women who earn more than their partner do less housework than other women, but they still do more than their male partners. So differences in pay alone don’t seem to explain the disparity.

The other type of explanation points to gender socialisation processes and argues that men and women internalise the norms and behaviour they witness growing up at home but also in the wider society around them in school, the media and elsewhere. These socialisation processes are more difficult to study, but are sometimes investigated by comparing gender differences in domestic work across countries with different gender norms or by studying couples’ attitudes to gender roles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women with more egalitarian attitudes do less housework than traditional women, but even those with egalitarian attitudes do more housework than their male partners. Because we had information from both members of the couple in our study we were able to look at the gender attitudes within the couple jointly. We wondered whether couples might share housework equally when they both held egalitarian beliefs.

IS: What were the main conclusions of your new research?

AM: Our analysis identified eight different groups which characterised the ways in which couples divide these four types of work in the UK. In all but two small groups women did more housework than men. Even in our largest group (which accounted for over 40% of couples) in which both the man and woman were employed, usually full-time, and who tended to be younger and not have children to look after, women did much more housework than men. The majority of women in this group did between 10-20 hours of housework per week while the majority of men in this group did less than five hours of housework per week. Women and men only shared housework equally in a small group (6% of couples) in which the woman was the employed main earner and the man was not employed or worked part-time. And there was a very small group (1% of couples) in which men did more housework than women; all of the men in this group spent more than 20 hours per week doing housework.

Shared egalitarian attitudes towards gender roles were associated with more equal divisions of work within couples, but even within these couples women did more housework than men.

From these results we concluded than gender equality in divisions of different types of work within couples remains rare in the UK and gender norms in relation to gender divisions of work remain strong.

IS: How might we achieve a more equal division of unpaid domestic work?

AM: Tackling this persistent unequal division of domestic labour probably requires a multi-pronged approach. We might seek to change social norms through early education and through both traditional and social forms of media. As parents we can be more aware of our own behaviours and the messages they send to our children. However, even when couples share egalitarian attitudes and wish to share unpaid domestic work and paid employment equally, a lack of affordable, high-quality childcare, and stigma around flexible working, particularly in male-dominated sectors, may make doing so difficult. Examples from Nordic countries have shown that men are much more likely to take up paternity leave if it is well-paid and targeted, and we know that fathers who are more involved with their children at the start remain more involved as children grow older which studies show has benefits for the whole family.

Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_McMunn.