Big Society and the 21-hour week

A shorter working week would not only slash the benefits bill but drastically improve public life.

David Cameron's Big Society proposal, supposed to breathe new vigour into Britain's public life, appears to have been dead on arrival. Denounced by many Conservatives as too "wooly", damned by others as a fig-leaf for cuts, and said to need major government spending to have any chance of working, Cameron must be wondering how to get his big idea off the ground.

Had he been sitting in a packed-out LSE lecture hall last week for the "About Time" presentation, he would have found the low-cost, practical solution to make the Big Society take off: the panel made the case for Britain adopting a 21-hour working week.

On a recent walkabout in Brixton, where I am a Councillor, I met Sandra, a single mum juggling work and child care. She was excited about a new scheme which gave local people a more direct say over youth services, but was frustrated she couldn't be involved. "I'd put the Big into the Big Society if I could," she said. "But when am I going to find the hours?"

If David Cameron really wants people like Sandra to "Join the Government of Britain" he needs to make more than just a call to arms. With a 21-hour week Sandra would not have to choose between work, caring for her family and being a more active part of her community: she could do all at the same time.

As well as providing the freedom for people to make a Big Society happen, a shorter working week would help create the conditions to make it viable. The demand for funded organisations to provide services on society's behalf would reduce as the entire nation became able to both work and volunteer. Britain's benefits bill would also be slashed by the full employment a 21-hour week would bring.

With free time making up the majority of the week, the improvements for family life, the environment and equality would also translate into lower crime, happier communities and better health. All of this would cost the state less as people could do more with their own lives. All they need to be given is the time.

To make a successful transition happen, government would need to take certain steps. One would be wealth redistribution to those with the lowest incomes, to ensure a dignified standard of living. There would also be a reduction of overall consumption; a socially agreed exchange in return for higher living standards in other areas.

Cameron would need to forge landmark agreements between employers and unions to increase the flexibility of work as hours were gradually reduced. He would also need the courage to see down those who decry these measures as utopian. They offer the best hope of bringing his promise of a Big Society to life.

Alex Holland is a Labour Councillor for Brixton Hill, Lambeth

Len McCluskey. Photo: Getty
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Unite leadership race: What Len McCluskey's victory means

His margin is smaller than expected, but you only need to win by one. 

Come at the king, best not miss. And they did miss, albeit by a smaller margin than many expected. Len McCluskey has defeated Gerard Coyne, his Corbynsceptic rival, by 59,067 votes to 53,544 to remain as Unite's general secretary. Ian Allinson, running to McCluskey’s left, did surprisingly well with 17,143 votes.

A couple of things to note. The turnout was low – just 12.2 per cent – brought down by, among other things, the need to cast a postal vote and the view of the McCluskey camp that the smaller the turnout, the more important the payroll vote would be. But more significant is that Unite has shed about half a million members, confirming that it is anachronistic to refer to it as “Britain’s largest trade union”. That is, for the moment, Unison, a public sector union. (Unison actually had a lightly larger general fund membership by the close of 2015 but this decisively confirms that trend.)

The shift attests to the bigger – and neglected – story about the labour movement: that it is getting smaller, older, and more concentrated in the public sector. That’s a far bigger problem for the Labour party and the labour movement than who leads Unite or the Labour party.

That aside, the small margin is a shock – as I wrote last month, Unite is quite well-run these days, so you’d make McCluskey the favourite even before factoring in the ability of the incumbent to make life easier for himself. Most in the trade union movement expected McCluskey to win and win well for precisely that reason. As one senior official from another union put it: “Jaguar workers are earning more because of Len. That’s what it’s about, really.”

So the small margin means that Coyne may be found a role at the TUC and gently eased out the door rather than removed hastily. (Though the TUc would be highly unlikely to accept that arrangement.)Ian Allison, however, will be less lucky. One McCluskey loyalist said that the leftist would be “hunted with dogs” – not only was Allison expected not to do well, allies of McCluskey believed that he had agreed to tone down his campaign. Instead Allison's success contributed to the close-run result. (Unite uses first past the post to decide its internal contests.)

What does it mean for the struggle for control within Labour? Well, as far as the finely-balanced national executive committee is concerned, Unite’s nominees are elected at annual conference so any changes would be a way off, in any case.

The result does however increase the chances that Jeremy Corbyn will be able to stay on after a defeat. Removing Corbyn would mean handing control back to Tom Watson, with whom McCluskey's relations are now at an all time low. “I think there’s a feeling of: you came for me, you bastard, now I’m coming for you,” a trade union official says. That means that the chances that Corbyn will be able to weather a defeat on 8 June – provided Labour retain close to what one figure dubbed the “magic number” of 200 seats – have now considerably increased.

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

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