British Day? Let's have lots of them

A British Day would mean an extra day off work, so why should we stop at just one?

There’s been a lot of discussion this week about the possibility of having a ‘British Day’. Ruth Kelly and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne, in a Fabian Society pamphlet, are proposing this as a new public holiday, and have stimulated a wide debate and many headlines along the lines of ‘What is Britishness anyway?’.

The Daily Mail was on fine, frightening form, ridiculing the emphasis on better community relations in the ministers’ statement, and wondering how a government that banned fox hunting could lay claim to any kind of national pride. Hmmm.

More reflectively, Derek Wall, my counterpart as Principal Speaker of the Green Party suggested 1 May as a candidate for a British Day. May Day is at least an ancient festival, and its modern-day connotations of progressive protest are also appealing, but I reckon we have got enough holidays in the spring already.

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the proposal has hardly been mentioned. We are being offered a new bank holiday, and not before time. Workers in the UK get a raw deal on public holidays compared with almost everywhere else. With eight a year, we’re on average three days behind Europe, and even America trounces us with eleven federal holidays plus a range of state holidays on top (Texas has six!).

We also work longer hours than anywhere else in Europe, and our mental and physical health suffers as a result. One in three British employees thinks they are less healthy thanks to their working patterns and a 2006 survey showed that the average lunch break had declined to under 20 minutes, with most people eating lunch at their ‘workstations’.

And the bosses are as badly off as the rest of us, at least in their work-life balance: one in five managers in the UK works the equivalent of a seven-day week.

We are badly in need of more time off. So, if we can’t agree on what to celebrate with one new bank holiday, why not create three or four?

There are plenty of ideas already out there, with various campaigns taking advantage of this week’s debate to make the case for a public celebration of their cause. Alex Salmond called for St. Andrew’s day in November to herald the start of a winter festival, and campaigners for a St. George’s Day holiday in England also seized the chance to speak up, citing the fact that "in Ireland they go berserk on St Patrick’s Day". Apart from everything else, 23 April is also part of the spring glut, so this one doesn’t get my vote either.

From a practical point of view, July has to be the prime candidate for an extra day off. It's the month that usually has the best weather and – frustratingly – is a bank holiday-free zone at present. If it was given to me to decide I think I’d pick my birthday, name it ‘Lido Day’ and then put plenty of Lottery funding into making sure everyone had the chance to lounge around at a nearby pool.

There’s a lot about local communities in the ministers’ proposals. So, another suggestion of mine, for the similarly blighted run up to Christmas, is ‘Buy Local Day’ where shops selling plastic and electronic goods from the far east are closed and we visit independent shops to buy locally made, seasonal presents.

The day would of course be finished off with a huge feast of local food and a pint of local beer.

So that’s two sorted out. How about a national vote on the other two, pitting the nationalist campaigners against those in favour of commemorating Sylvia Pankhurst’s birthday, the Magna Carta, Waterloo or the day we invented Blu Tack? That would keep us occupied for a while, and might result in some interesting choices.

I don't think it really matters what we go for. Finding things to actually ‘celebrate’ is a bit of a minefield, as Ruth Kelly has found out; and whatever you choose is likely to raise someone’s hackles.

Perhaps instead we should have holidays to promote things that are still works in progress, such as peace, justice, democracy, or indeed protecting the environment. Or, given our chronic need for rest, why not just pick a few dates at random and call them ‘days off’.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.