Let’s demand less work
Andy Murray is turning shop steward. The tennis player has made headlines around the world threatening to lead a rackets down walk out if the gruelling schedule required of pro-tennis players isn’t cut. The number of games they are forced to put their bodies through a year is dangerous, we are told. And so they must work less.
It’s very easy to dismiss their protest. They are paid millions. While their work is painful, it is hardly the grinding, life endangering job of those who pick the cotton from which their glowing whites are likely sewn, or the agonising abused hours of the women who probably stitched them.
But if people as popular as the planet’s leading tennis players can remind the world that withdrawing your labour is a valid tactic, then I guess that’s useful. And perhaps more of us could learn the specific lesson: perhaps many more of us should be demanding less work.
On Monday night I went to see Compass chair Neal Lawson speak in an Islington pub. Among other things, he repeated one of his favourite questions: “would you like more time to read your kids a bed-time story?” How many people would chose to work fewer hours if they could? And how many unemployed people would desperately love to take those hours on? There is a clear imperative to raise wages to ensure that everyone has enough. But once that has been achieved, how many would choose scaling back our hours over a pay rise? How many would chose to have more time to read their children a bed time story?
As it happens, a redistribution of work was also a centre-piece of Simon Hughes’ Liberal Democrat conference speech that day: and no surprise. Liberals have been arguing that technology should deliver a shorter working week ever since Keynes imagined in the early 20th century that by the year 2000, we’d be at our jobs only 15 hours a week. As technology improved, we’d cut back. Now, I’m no liberal, but I do often think we should push this message significantly more. The reason I was able to go to the Compass talk on a week night in London (not where I live) was that I just went part time in my own job – I started to job share.
Of course, Keynes wasn’t that far off. In fact, as the excellent report from the New Economics Foundation has pointed out, the average working week in the UK today for those who want employment is 21 hours. With high unemployment and underemployment blighting so many lives, and significant over employment and late nights at the office hitting so many more, surely we should be demanding a re-distribution?
Douglas Alexander recently argued that Labour should be the party of aspiration. This is defined, he told us, by the desire for a conservatory and a wide screen TV: “Being the party of holidays, home ownership, and an HD TV is something the party’s ethical socialist tradition has struggled with”. He goes on to say: “The holiday might be the one time we get to spend the hours with our kids”. And of course he is right that Labour – and the Green Party – should be parties of aspiration. Because if we aren’t, then we will be parties of regression. But the solution to our increasingly stressed lives is surely not that we have a brighter TV screen to hypnotise us when we return home. The answer to the dwindling time people have to spend with their children is not that the annual holiday is more comfortable. And the solution to the fact that homes built under Mr Alexander’s privatised housing market are so small they would have been illegal in the 1970s is not conservatories.
Neal Lawson has another line he often repeats: ‘we are living in a utopia: but it’s not our utopia. It’s someone elses.’ If we are to build ours, we must first imagine it. And we must learn to describe it in ways that are clear to everyone, where everyone can see how their lives will be better. And then we must together struggle for it.
So, I don’t have children. But if I did, I would certainly like to have the time to read them a bedtime story. And in the mean time, I like that I can go to Islington pubs and dream. And I suspect that Andy Murray should be allowed to play less tennis.