For generations social reformers have fought for a level playing- field, but what does that mean in Britain today?
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". Brown claims the new way will achieve "even greater equality".

However, the cases of Karen Cotter and James and Cathy Yates are, says David Piachaud, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, a good example of why it is extremely hard to separate equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. "Even if there is equality of opportunity there are huge differences in outcome. Differences are not purely down to individual effort. Simply ensuring equality of opportunity doesn't create equality in itself. It creates a meritocratic society."

And what, say post-egalitarians, is wrong with that? Might it be that equality has outlived its usefulness as an aim? Inequality, they believe, is not the worst thing that can occur in society. Poverty and hopelessness are far worse. Post-egalitarians believe we can and should tackle misery by promoting the widest possible meritocracy. There are signs that Tony Blair leans towards this approach. While most other Labour politicians pepper their pronouncements with the word "equality", Mr Blair is conspicuously silent on the subject. If he intends to remove it from its primus inter pares status among the three aims of the French Revolution, and set greater store by liberty and a communitarian variant of fraternity, he will have a struggle in his own party which will make the Clause IV battle pale into insignificance. Redistribution, says Prof Piachaud, formerly adviser to two Labour governments, is fundamental, even if not favoured by New Labour. "In many ways, you don't know who is faring badly until they have fared badly and need help, and for some groups like the elderly, the opportunities are simply not there to go out and earn money."

Equality also remains a main concern of the Joseph Rowntree research foundation; it produced a detailed study in 1995, claiming that between 1977 and 1990, income inequality in the UK grew rapidly, reaching a higher level than since the Second World War. Professor John Hills, who is putting together a new report for the foundation, says that the situation improved somewhat in the early 1990s. If living standards were to rise to an acceptable level for the poorest members of society, would the concept of equality become invalid? "The big question is whether it is equality we are worried about, or whether it is some concept of poverty," says Prof Hills. "I would argue that it should be a cause for concern when a certain group does not benefit from economic growth. But just because you are concerned with the poorest doesn't mean that you are necessarily worried about the gap between those in the middle and those at the top."

The notion of equality is not completely outdated, he believes. "When there is super-growth for those at the very top, they become disconnected from society in the same way as those at the very bottom. This top group will stop using services like the NHS, and stop supporting them; then such services become seen as services for the poor. There is an argument that a healthy society does not have big gaps at any level."

THE WEEK'S other big equality battle-front was Marylebone Cricket Club's much-criticised decision to continue to deny membership to women. If economic equality is a far-distant goal, sexual equality is also well over the horizon. But, argues Mary-Ann Stephenson, campaigns manager of the Fawcett Society, which works for equality for men and women, it has become impossible to separate the economic and gender issues. "Two of our main areas of concern are employment and poverty. Between men and women across all social classes, things seem to be improving in terms of the pay gap. But this conceals big differences among the poorest workers, where the gap between men and women is much bigger. Poorly paid women are very poorly paid indeed."

It is, she says, difficult to see how the gaps can be narrowed without an element of redistribution. "The richest group is composed of men, the poorest of women. Tax cuts benefit more men than women, increased welfare payments benefit more women than men. So, tax cuts benefit rich men at the expense of poor women."

The impact of feminism has left a question mark over what sort of society we are pursuing when we talk of a more equal Britain. Prof Piachaud, for one, remains sanguine. "If we were getting nearer to a really equal Britain, we would have to worry more about how to define the end-goal, but we are not. I used to worry about the definition of equality, but now I don't."