Why Sunday trading laws must return after the Olympics

We must not surrender every vision we have of a good society to the market.

What was your first time like? Did you enjoy it? No doubt you were nervous but then so was everyone else there, so that presumably made it a bit more exciting. Yes, it was an exquisite moment, for which we all waited so many years: the annoying tannoy wasn’t heard, the doors weren’t locked, and everyone was free to stroll the aisles of Tesco long into the balmy Sunday evening.

When George Osborne announced the "temporary" suspension of Sunday trading laws during the Olympics, there were many, myself included, who thought that temporary was the odd word out in that sentence. Obviously, we shouldn’t prejudge the situation and obviously we have to wait till the figures come out but only the most witless of chancellors would fail to seize every opportunity to drag the nation from the precipice of a triple-dip recession.

No surprise, then, to see City AM editor Allister Heath argue that now is the moment to throw open the doors once and for all or, more substantially, Alex Deane on ConservativeHome making the same case for reasons of economic growth, fairness, personal choice, and employment.

There is much to question in both these arguments. Circumventing Heath’s argument from exaggeration and trivialisation ("contrary to what many killjoys have been predicting over the years, at the time of writing this article, society appeared to have survived") there is Deane’s contention that we need to liberalise the laws because "the British high street is struggling". This does not persuade: deregulating opening hours for out-of-town mega-stores is unlikely to help the high street. Similarly, his claim that "the current rules are unfair… [as] some retailers can remain open while others are forced to close" invites us to imagine that a playing field populated by handful of Gullivers and a myriad of Lilliputians is already, somehow, fair.

Comparably fantastic is Deane’s explanation that Sunday trading rules actually inhibit "family and community activity": "if consumers no longer had to build their weekend schedule around restrictive shopping hours, they would have greater flexibility to engage in a wide range of activities." Build their weekend schedule? Around the fact that they can’t visit Asda at 7pm on a Sunday evening?

The more serious argument is apparently the economic one, of which Heath says, "I have never actually seen a cost-benefit analysis that showed that there would be a negative impact from liberalising retail." Apparently, that is, because it is hard to imagine that either writer would revise their position if the figures showed that liberalisation had but a marginal economic impact. On the contrary, both are clear that there is, for want of a better word, a moral argument at play. "The government should not limit the options of how individuals and families spend their Sundays", writes Deane. "Why not permanently allow consenting adults to shop freely on Sundays?" asks Heath.

Beneath the relatively trivial question of whether a small number of large shops should be able to open for a few extra hours one evening a week, lurks one of the biggest ethical fault lines of our age. For those on one side of this divide, the phrase "consenting adults" acts like a universal acid on any ethical discourse: are they adult? Are they informed? Do they consent? Well, what’s your problem them?

For others, their problem is that "I want" is not a sufficient argument, even when hitched to the tattered, over-used and hopelessly vague harm principle. Most of us are unwilling to embrace the moral relativism that this kind of approach demands. Notions of the good invariably come into play, as even the hardiest of economic libertarians will recognise – witness Professor Michael Sandel asking John Redwood whether he was up for a free market in kidneys.

OK, so perhaps that isn’t the most objective description of this ethical fault line, but that is partly my point. In all serious questions of the just and the good, there is no neutral place to stand. Sunday trading laws come and, I fear, go. But the question beneath them will remain: are we really prepared to surrender every vision we have of a good society to the freedom and alleged fairness of the market?

Sunday trading laws have been suspended for eight weeks during the Olympics and Paralympics. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.