Protecting the 48 hour week is not good enough – Labour should be fighting for a four day week

The pandemic has ripped up the rule book on work, Keir Starmer has an opportunity to fight for more workers’ rights – not settle for what we had before Brexit and coronavirus

Joe Ryle
Thursday 28 January 2021 09:22
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<p>Keir Starmer has an opportunity to help build a better Britain post-pandemic</p>

Keir Starmer has an opportunity to help build a better Britain post-pandemic

The Labour Party has rightly been ridiculed for a misjudged tweet that stated the party is “fighting to protect the 48 hour week”, when only a year ago the party campaigned for a four-day (32 hour) working week.

Of course, Labour has to oppose attempts to water down our workers' rights, but if the past decade has taught us anything, it's that a defensive campaign is a losing one. Ed Miliband, the current shadow business secretary, learned that the hard way in 2015, as did Jeremy Corbyn over Brexit.

Therefore, the best way to fight the government's proposed dismantling of workers’ rights is to set out a positive vision detailing a better future of work in which workers rights are extended.

By this logic, if the government threatens to remove existing working time regulations, then Labour should seek to expand them. When they challenge the 48 hour working week, Labour should be demanding a four-day (32 hour) working week with no loss of pay to give people something worth fighting for.

The case for a four-day week should be obvious by now. Under the existing working time regulations, more than two-thirds report being stressed or overworked in their job and research by the Health and Safety Executive showed a shocking 18 million working days were lost in 2019/20 as a result of work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

According to the Trades Union Congress, the UK already works longer full-time hours than any EU country (except for Greece), but has one of the comparatively least productive economies and the fewest number of bank holidays.

Throughout history, shorter working hours have been used during times of crisis and economic recession as a way of sharing existing work more equally across the economy. With the Covid pandemic having already made nearly a million people unemployed, the time has surely come for a similar strategy to be used again.

In the UK, the four-day week is now under serious consideration by the Scottish government and many local councils, and backed by the Welsh Future Generations Commissioner and many businesses. Even Rishi Sunak has introduced a shorter hours scheme to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

It's unhelpful to fixate on one badly misjudged tweet, but the fear is that it's emblematic of a wider problem faced by Keir Starmer. By offering little beyond the status quo, Boris Johnson and the Tories can remain on the front foot, setting the terms of political debate.

Jeremy Corbyn had many faults, but the current Labour leadership would do well to recognise that his consistent calls for a more hopeful, radical society, succeeded in shifting the bounds of political acceptability by enough to make many of the Tories’ most destructive ideas unpalatable to the general public.

In a world that feels upside down, with the country facing the biggest crisis since the second world war - standing idly by just doesn't cut it.

When it comes to the world of work, the impact of the Covid pandemic has thrown everything up in the air. Shifts that seemed impossible back in March – such as moving most work remotely – have now become the norm.

The pandemic has also given many people the time to rethink what they hold to be most important, and – to be frank – few desire a simple return to pre-Covid “normality”, in the world of work at least. As Gary Younge, the professor of sociology at the University of Manchester said, we “should understand that ‘normal’ is what got us here.”

Taking both this and the growing popularity for a four-day working week into consideration, Labour has a significant opportunity to shift the terms of political debate on working hours.

In a post-Brexit and post-Covid world, Labour must do better than campaigning to preserve existing rights given to us by the EU. Backing a four-day week and an expansion of workers rights is the smart thing to do.

Joe Ryle is a campaigner with the 4 Day Week Campaign, a former advisor to John McDonnell MP and a former Labour Party press officer

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