I don't want to be in Labour's chain gang

In puritanical new Britain, Suzanne Moore makes a plea for leisure, and the right not to work
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The Independent Online
Work, work, work. Work is our duty, work is our salvation. Work is the answer to every question. Our welfare depends on work. Anyone who signs on for benefit "will be signing up for work", according to Gordon Brown.

No one should expect something for nothing. Not the young unemployed, not mothers with children, and certainly not children. Single mothers should get back to work. Children should work in their holidays to catch up. They should join homework clubs. They should start school earlier. Latch-key kids should not be at home watching Neighbours when they could be in educational crammer projects.

Everyone should work harder at their relationships. Being a good parent is hard work but someone has got to do it. We must work to rebuild our communities. We should work at work, work at home, work through our problems, work-out at the gym, work off our worries so that they don't affect our performance at work.

The work ethic central to the Blairite project is being happily swigged down left, right and centre. The new dissidents are the workshy, the fiddlers and scroungers, the idlers or just anyone like myself who believes that there is more to life than work. The work ethic is being re-vamped: whereas at the height of Thatcherism work was good because greed was good and everything was about individual achievement, work is now a moral obligation that one undertakes for the common good. To not work when work is available is no longer viable.

"There will be no fifth option," as Gordon Brown said ominously in his Budget speech when discussing the four options to be offered to the young unemployed. The government's responsibility is to make work available, the individual's to take it no matter what it is. It is true of course that a job, however poorly paid, is often the first stepping stone for the long-term unemployed. It is also true that over-achieving politicians and think-tankers often have no experience themselves of doing boring, menial, repetitive tasks. They would be hard-pressed to find any meaning or dignity in the kinds of employment they feel young people should be compelled to take.

I have done enough mind-blowingly dull jobs in the past to know that those who talk only of careers exhibit little understanding of the reality of many working environments. The new chain-gangs will not be rock breakers but surly bunches of loft insulators who happen to think that they are worth more than pounds 20 a week.

The vast majority of single mothers will not become self-supporting through employment. Women who look after other women's children will often do so for way below any minimum wage. As Ceridwen Roberts, director of the Family Policy Studies Centre, asks, "Do we want a society which in practice only values employment, yet at the same time expects more of parents?" The combination of paid work and caring that puts so much pressure on all kinds of families can only be relieved by policies that actually involve shorter working hours, more flexible working practices and parental leave for mothers and fathers.

The New Deal, with its innate puritanism, is but one test of how authoritarian this government will be. In many ways it seems remarkably old-fashioned. It sees work as the key site in which the individual connects to community and society. The dream is still of full employment, no matter what the economists say. The young must be pressed into work-schemes even if there are no jobs at the end. Most young people want real jobs for real money. Can you blame them?

Yet throughout the Tory years all sorts of other visions of collectivity and community emerged that had nothing to do with work - from the rave scene, from the new travellers, from football culture, even from the ragged- trousered road protesters. We can either file these away under alt.lifestyles. co.uk as insignificant, as New Labour rhetoric is likely to do, or we could ask instead for a new deal which accepts the changing relationship between work and leisure.

Who now remembers the futurologists of the Seventies such as Alvin Toffler or Andre Gorz? They offered up a future where we would all work less, where work would be redistributed, where the distinction between production and consumption would become blurred. We would recognise that much of our so-called leisure time is spent producing goods and services for our own use - what Toffler called "prosuming". The question then is not work versus leisure but paid work versus unpaid, self-directed and self-monitored work. Parenting of course is just such work. To incorrectly define all unpaid work as leisure fuels the notion that we should not subsidise single mothers because they do nothing.

That may now seem very idealistic, but it is not as idealistic as pretending that full and stable employment will be there for everyone or that all work is fantastically worthwhile. Work is currently being switched from being a right to an obligation and those at the bottom at the heap will have fewer rights and more obligations than those at the top.

The assumption that this feeds the common good is a strange one when those who clearly do work towards the common good - health workers and teachers, for example - are not particularly well-rewarded for it either financially or in social status. Similarly those who cannot work, the very young, the old, the sick, those who are no longer productive, will increasingly be deemed to be a burden on those who can.

The paradox has been that as the nature of work has changed the language of the work-place has colonised every part of our private lives: the working out and through of problems, the grind of relationships, the toil of parenting, the managing of childcare which involves the learning of multi-skilling and the division of time into suitable chunks. What is the opposite of quality time? Quantity time? No way.

Who will speak up for idleness in such a world? Who will say that those who don't work or can't work may still have some value? Who will say that work is part of life but not its sole purpose? Who will defend the scroungers and the layabouts and the lazy and the conscientious objectors to the system, the very bogymen of this workaholic government? Who will strike out against this new work ethic on the grounds that it is neither ethical nor workable? It's a dirty job. So give it to some 20-year-old slacker, I've already got enough to do.