It’s an inconvenient truth for campaigners trying to persuade Boris Johnson’s government to explore a four-day working week that the idea was first proposed by Jeremy Corbyn. During the 2019 General Election, Conservative MPs lined up to attack what became one of Labour's flagship policies. With the election in full swing, one Tory MP went as far as saying it would ‘wreck the economy’.
But with the general election and Jeremy Corbyn now a distant memory, the Conservative Party should look at the idea in a different light and seriously examine its merits as a way to build up the economy post Covid-19. With an unemployment crisis on the horizon, a four-day week makes a lot of sense and the Conservative Party would be foolish to ignore it.
Shorter working times has been used throughout history as a way of responding to economic crises. According to the New Economics Foundation, ‘the average full-time week in the UK fell steadily from 46 hours in 1946 to 40 hours by 1979.’ Since the 1980s this trend has not continued.
Last weekend a group of cross-party MPs, campaigners, academics and economists penned a letter to the Chancellor Rishi Sunak urging the government to consider exploring shorter working times for the UK, including a four-day working week, as one route out of the coronavirus pandemic.
They argued that ‘a four-day week presents itself as one of the best options for fundamentally restructuring the economy so that work is shared more equally.’
Since the letter was published, an Early Day Motion has been tabled in Parliament which is already beginning to show the depth of cross-party support for the idea. However, there’s a glaring lack of support from Conservative MPs.
The 4 Day Week Campaign's preferred option is for a four-day, 30-hour working week (or any equivalent variation) with no reduction in pay for employees (except for the highest earners who can clearly afford to take the option). This may seem unrealistic to some and the campaign is open to exploring different options and models, but ultimately there has to be protection built-in for those on low-incomes otherwise the proposal would become deeply unpopular.
One option which we believe the government should explore now is using the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to subsidise a reduced working week to tackle the unemployment crisis. In this way, a shorter working week would redistribute work to those who are going to need new jobs.
In some respects, a four-day week could be seen as an extension of David Cameron's ‘Big Society’ – with one of the biggest advantages being better mental health and wellbeing across the board as a result of more time available for socialising, family life and community.
For those Tory MPs in constituencies that are heavily reliant on the tourism industry, there are added benefits as a four-day week would undoubtedly boost tourism across the country because of the extra leisure time people would have available.
In May, the Scottish Government announced a new Post-Covid-19 Futures Commission which is exploring the potential for a four-day working week for Scotland and the Welsh Government's Future Generations Commissioner is also looking at the idea.
Conservatives may find it difficult to get behind the policy, fearing ridicule for supporting an idea which was also supported by Corbyn.
But a four-day week is deeply popular – three quarters of UK workers already supported a four-day working week before the Coronavirus pandemic hit and millions of workers have now had a taste of working remotely and on different hours.
It's in no one's interests to return back to the pressure and stress that people were under before this pandemic. Conservatives would be silly to let a policy's former association with Jeremy Corbyn steer them away from one of the best ideas around right now.