The Labour Party Will Transform Britain

The Labour Party just set out its most radical plan yet ahead of the looming general election. It’s the most ambitious proposal in British politics in decades.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell delivers his keynote speech on the third day of the Labour Party conference on September 23, 2019 in Brighton, England. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Late Sunday night, one of the biggest travel agencies in United Kingdom collapsed. Thomas Cook had been in trouble for years, and a large chunk of its revenue was spent paying down the problem debt the company had accumulated.

Most of the media coverage focused on the huge number of customers affected: hundreds of thousands were stranded abroad, and airports were in chaos as people desperately tried to return home while planes were grounded. But 21,000 people also lost their jobs in a heartbeat: the company still maintains a large presence in streets throughout Britain’s cities and towns, and many people are suddenly faced with fear and financial ruin after the government refused to inject the £200 million that would have saved the company.

Boris Johnson’s government must now foot the bill for repatriating the stranded, even before the economic cost of so many job losses is factored in: hedge funds had bet on the company’s collapse and are estimated to have netted $250 million from credit default swaps, so the already wealthy have profited from the misfortune and misery of those far poorer than themselves.

While the collapse was dominating news bulletins, John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor, delivered his most radical speech yet on Labour’s economic plans for government. As the Tories were attempting to smooth over Thomas Cook’s collapse, McDonnell announced that Labour would push for a four-day working week, a higher minimum wage, and capped rents to end in-work poverty.

Immediate criticisms from the Right insisted it was impossible to pay for, but the timing of that argument reveals the contempt many conservatives have for the general public. The Conservatives constantly argue that saving money in the short term should take precedent over everything else, but voters aren’t idiots: refusing to rescue Thomas Cook might have saved the government an immediate £200 million, but the long-term cost — of rescuing vacationers and less tax revenue thanks to the massive job losses — will be far higher, even before the impact on the high street is felt. Poverty is expensive for any government in the long term: austerity has forced more people to rely on social security to make ends meet, and the government ends up spending more trying to solve problems that could have been prevented by ensuring people were taken care of to begin with.

A shorter workweek would lessen stress, give people more leisure and time with their families, and improve mental and physical health. It’s easy to forget that the five-day workweek was seen as unattainable until it became a reality thanks to the struggles of workers who understood that life outside of work is crucial to happiness and community. Few people actually want to work themselves to death, and a poverty of political ambition has beset British politics for too long. Labour’s radicalism is a long time coming.

One of the many reasons the New Labour project failed was its assumption that politics could be little more than diverging very slimly on policy and aping the Conservatives. McDonnell’s speech was more daring than any delivered since Corbyn took office, and more clearly announced to voters what Labour stands for: a Britain under Labour will be more ambitious in terms of what it can do for the lives of many people, using progressive taxation to decrease poverty, but also strongly reimagining what work and society will be.

The National Health Service, the idea of state education, and the decision to ban child labor were radical ideas until their implementation, and then suddenly, they weren’t. Things can and do change, and improving the health and happiness of the nation should be the prime motivating factor for all politicians.

The backlash against the prospect of a shorter workweek betrays a lack of political ambition, but also stupidly assumes the public wouldn’t relish spending less time slogging for their bosses. But it’s likely to find support in more surprising corners, too: a poll commissioned in March found that not only do 71 percent of people think it would make them happier, with 63 percent backing the idea — but also that 64 percent of business managers back a four-day week. Overwork makes no sense, and tired employees are bad for business: even those who don’t care about the happiness of their staff should pause to consider the economic benefits of improving workplaces.

As McDonnell says, we should all work to live, rather than live to work. A shorter workweek more evenly distributes work: fewer people working longer hours means miserable people in work, and more poverty and unemployment. A Labour Party that actually cares about labor rights is not only welcome in itself — it should also worry the Conservatives, who have no vision, no ambition, and don’t dare envisage or even suggest a better world.