Watching the British Labour Party general election campaign has been, on the whole, a depressing affair. The Party has taken a momentous decision, on Brexit, to enter a General Election with a promise to have no fixed policy at all, and to make up its mind later. It decided at its annual conference six weeks ago that a British Labour Government would, if elected, close down and seize the property of private and independent schools – an idea that is sure to be “borrowed” by the Irish left, with all the consequences that will have for catholic schools here.
It has decided to give the vote to 16 year olds, and anybody living in the UK at the time of an election – even if you had only moved there that week – in an attempt to change the electorate because the current one doesn’t like it very much. There is more, but all in all, it hasn’t been a very attractive spectacle.
On one issue though, the party has said something interesting, though it has largely been lost in the clamour around Brexit and all the rest. If elected, it says, it would move to introduce a mandatory four day working week, giving people an extra day off.
Now, to be clear – the specific Labour Proposal is a mess. As is customary for the left, it smacks of the heavy-handed, rules and regulations approach to bossing people around. A Mandatory four-day week will not work for everyone. Imagine for a second how it would impact your local hairdresser, or corner shop, with five or six employees each working five days. Small businesses would be compelled to hire more staff, with all the taxes and regulations that entails, and in the end, it is likely that jobs would be lost, not gained. In addition, if somebody wants to work five days, there is absolutely no good reason for the state to tell them that they cannot.
The Labour Proposal also demands that people are paid the exact same as they are today, but for a whole day’s less work every week. That, again, is a roadmap for putting small businesses out of business.
All that said, though, they might be on to something, even if the actual proposal they have come up with is so problematic.
We live in a changing and rapidly evolving world, where customers and businesses demand more and more flexibility. Many people, and many marriages and families, come under pressure from the economic necessity for most households to have two stable incomes in order for them to function. Families are piling up childcare costs, commuting costs, while at the same time far too many households exist in a kind of zombie state where when the spouses actually get to see each other at the weekend, they are too tired or stressed to have a satisfying relationship. I suspect that this is one of the reasons that family breakdown rates are increasing, and why people are having fewer children, and having them so much later.
At the same time, we live in a world where in many careers, this kind of slave-driving simply is not, and should not be, necessary. Many people work in jobs where their primary tool is a computer. Computers function just as well at home as they do in an office. We live in a bizarre country where, every single day, upwards of half a million people get up in the morning, get into a car, or onto a bus or a train, and spend three or four hours a day travelling into Dublin or Cork or Galway City Centre to do something they could do just as effectively, one or two days a week, from home.
This is, of course, a legacy of the days when we all worked as factory workers or labourers. And unfortunately, some jobs will always require round the clock presence. Our health service, already a disaster, would not function if the nurses or doctors decided to work from home. Schools cannot very well adopt a four-day week, nor can Gardai or Supermarkets.
All that said, though, surely there is scope to lessen the burden on families, and on individuals, working in a great many sectors where computerisation lessens the requirement for constant presence in an open-plan office?
Legislation that incentivised employers to reduce the amount of time their staff had to spend on-site would, I suspect, make a huge difference to a great many families in this country, at very little cost to productivity. We are told we must greatly reduce our carbon emissions – one simple way to do this would be to greatly reduce the number of daily commutes. A household where, instead of both spouses being at work for five days every week, both of them were gone for only three days, would, I suspect, be a happier and more relaxed one.
There are, of course, a great many problems with the idea – not least the fact that those of you who are teachers, or nurses, or Gardai would probably be very annoyed if the accountant next door got to work four days while you work five. But still, Mr. Corbyn is on to something with this, and it is an idea we should at least explore. Far more of us spend every day trudging our way into an office than need to, in this connected world. It’s time we realised that.