Sunday 9 July 2023

The Tory Politics of the Four-Day Week

Local authorities have been under the cosh for 13 years, and before that cuts to budgets and therefore services were not uncommon. The result? Many councils are close to financial collapse, and nearly all are running services made brittle by the Tories' austerity agenda. With another challenging funding round in the offing, what do you suppose Michael Gove, in his ministerial Levelling Up guise, was noted for during his speech at last week's Local Government Association conference? More money? Answers to the terrible restrictions his government have imposed on councils? No. It was his attack on the four-day working week being trialled by South Cambridgeshire District Council.

In a 61-firm pilot of the four-day week by Autonomy, they found 39% of employees of the companies who took part were less stressed, 71% felt less burnout, 40% slept better, and there was an overall improvement of physical and mental health. Where it comes to the bottom line, revenue increased by 14% on average and staff turnover declined by 57%. Of the firms who took part, 56 said they were keeping to the four-day week. Why might Gove find this successful pilot so objectionable? It's worth quoting him at length:
I’m a strong believer that a five-day working week is what so many of our other citizens are facing, and they need to work those five days in order to be able to pay their council tax and meet their other needs. A five-day working week seems to me to be what we should expect of people in public service who are having their wages paid by those council taxpayers.
Gove might have talked about the practicalities. He could even have drawn on the grumbles cluttering up many a local newspaper website about council employees "never" being in, but he went straight for the beggar-thy-neighbour argument and reached for the fetish of "the taxpayer". But why? If you want to look at these things naively, a shorter working week that results in a happier work force has several beneficial spin offs. Less time off equals more productivity. Better physical and mental health means fewer visits to the doctor's. Staff retention saves money on recruitment and associated paperwork, and allows for the development of institutional memory. Why might Gove be against something that improves a service for all concerned?

The reasoning is not hard to fathom. It comes back to class relations. While it is true the Conservative Party have historically favoured certain sectors of business over others - particularly the City of London - their propensity to short-termism and seemingly illogical policy lurches (from the standpoint of economic growth) is never far from their custodianship of class relations. They came to power in 1979 with a plan of class warfare, carried it through by defeating the labour movement in literal pitched battles, and have ever since responded with alacrity whenever the wage relation has been challenged or undermined, or appears to face such an obstacle.

Recall our recent experience with Covid. During the virtual closure of the country and the suspension of business-as-usual, the Tories resisted all calls to make direct payments to help people through the acute phase of the crisis. Support was purposely linked to employment via the job guarantee scheme, and you'll recall the lack of support - that reduced some to destitution - for whole swathes of the self-employed. Especially in sectors the the Tories don't like. Then no sooner as furlough was rolled out and other support measures announced, the government began its campaign of whittling it away. Conditionalities for social security were the first to return, and the government and their press allies kept banging the drum for a generalised return to work and relaxation of restrictions - regardless of what the data showed. What Covid demonstrated, however, was politically impressible. Despite decades of rhetoric it turned out the power of the state, even one as pared down and as dysfunctional as the British state, might be used to support people. It demonstrated a different way of doing things. This (potential) raising of expectations, such as properly funded public services and the idea lif didn't have to revolve around work had to be hammered so the status quo could be resumed after the emergency.

And so it has proven. The Tories badly mismanaged Covid, but they largely escaped its political consequences by a conscious effort of depoliticising the crisis and blaming everything since on abstractions and international crises (inflation! Ukraine!). Indeed, inflation is being used by the Tories to drive down living standards, and should be seen in the context of the potential power workers might wield in a tight labour market. Gove's refusal to countenance the four-day week is a moment in the Tories' collective effort to drive down the horizon of political possibility, to reinforce the idea there can be no other possible way of living your life than selling five days of your time (or more) per week. There is no alternative, and Gove and the Tory party are working hard to make sure it stays that way.


Blissex said...

«inflation is being used by the Tories to drive down living standards»

The UK policy of inflation is making only the lower classes of wage earners (and many small businesses) are being made "more competitive", the professionals are just increasing their prices as fast as they can, it looks like executives are giving themselves substantial inflation beating raises, and asset owners are benefiting a lot from real interest rates being -4% to -8%.

«the Tories' collective effort to drive down the horizon of political possibility, to reinforce the idea there can be no other possible way of living your life than selling five days of your time (or more) per week.»

Actually in the tory dream of a "property based democracy" for tory voters the only “possible way of living your life” is to collect rents and capital gains from their properties and other assets. Long hours for low pay are only for "losers", the lower classes. The dream tory England is one in which everybody lives off 2-3 BTL properties or their investment funds, and nobody has to to work :-).

I often fail to understand why people on "the left" keep talking of the Conservatives as being so stupid to impoverish their own "sponsors" and voters, despite their record of greatly benefiting them with large-scale government intervention in markets to redistribute to those "sponsors" and voters from the lower classes.
Our blogger here is one of the few who points out that the practice the politics of class war.

Blissex said...

«The reasoning is not hard to fathom. It comes back to class relations»

My guess for a long time is that this has been an important but minor purpose of the drive from above towards more bullshit job and longer hours...

The more important reason I think has nothing to do with *capitalist* class relations and more to do with "public order": keeping the lower classes exhausted with long hours and many days of work to keep them docile.

In "Economic possibilities for our grandchildren" JM Keynes thought that an average 15 hour work-week would become common in 2030.

Sure longer student and retirement periods have contributed to that (average over a lifetime), but he also notices that this would create the problem of "how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won" (note: I disagree that it were "science and compound interest").

From the point of view of any ruling class, and it is a problem independent of class relations, letting their inferiors have so much free time might cause a lot of unrest (unless they be weak and fearful in old age). Therefore the expansion of bullshit jobs,and "presentialism" to keep the lower orders busy.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget also that South Cambridgeshire have actually shown that it saves "the taxpayer" money...

Perhaps I'm naive, but "saving a few quid here and there matters more than decently funded and functional public services" looks like a much harder sell today, when the post-Truss news cycle is full of stories like the ongoing Rivers Of Shit juggernaut. It follows that on this issue, Gove and his minions are invoking the sacred Taxpayer merely out of habit, not out of nous; it will blow up in their faces in a heartbeat. On the BBC, if not yet in the red tops, their politics on easy mode pass has already been revoked and handed to Keir. And they've literally got nothing else, until their exhausted corpse can finally collapse into the bosom of the far right whilst on the opposition benches. Spluttering indignantly about the immorality of a four day week, and trying to recapture Gideon's hideous rhetoric about shirkers and strivers, is a weak rearguard action aimed at merely slowing down the winds of change until it's not their problem any more. Until it's Starmer's problem, and it's him who has to find a way to turn aside those winds at the behest of his paymasters.

As for the depoliticisation of Covid, that's not over yet. The inquiry has so far been busy re-politicising it, as far as I can tell. And I'm sure that we're all as keen as I am to find out what the inquiry will discuss concerning the numbers that have gone missing from the workforce, and how many of those are thought to have been invalidated out by Covid.

Anonymous said...

Despite some of the more convoluted reason given by earlier commenters. The reason Gove & the Tories generally are opposed to the 4 day week & even working from home is short-term politics at its worst. Their mates in property & their own property portfolios will be hit if there is less demand for office space. Apart from the immediate benefits to workers in having a better work/life balance, long term, empty offices could be repurposed as accomodation , improving urban life styles & helping to solve the housing crisis. But the short term loss in rental & lease income is what is paramount to them.