Your Liberal Britain: Work/Life Balance

Around the country, Your Liberal Britain events are giving people a chance to discuss what they want to see in a fair, free and open society. I was recently invited to speak at an event organised by Richard Flowers and the Cheadle Liberal Democrats, on something I’d like to see in a Liberal Britain.

I could have picked an obvious Lib Dem topic such as mental health, electoral reform, or social equality. But I decided to pick a topic that isn’t covered so much – work/life balance. I gave a short (3.5 minute) speech, followed by a Q&A. You can see a video of the speech below, followed by my notes as a rough transcript.

The discussion that followed touched on the value of work, dignity in the work place, employment standards and other topics. It was a great evening, and the other talks (Holly on how we treat immigrants, and Louise Bowe on diversity) are also well worth a watch.

For my Liberal Future, I’m going to look to the past. About a hundred and fifty years ago, to the Industrial Revolution. It was a time of great political upheaval, with the Chartists calling for access to democracy for the working class.

Working days of 10-15 hours were common, including Saturdays. As machines and steam supplanted manual and repetitive labour, people were working harder than ever. A popular slogan was “8 hours work, 8 hours rest, 8 hours leisure” – along with half-day Saturdays a balance which led to longer life, better health, the Football Association and more involvement in civic society and politics.

Since then, there has been another radical change in technology. Microelectronics and computers have automated repetitive thinking as well as repetitive labour. There has been no matching radical look at our work/life balance. Improvements have been made – proper rest breaks for shift workers, for example. There was the EU Working Time Directive. But even before Brexit, we had an opt out from that. It’s time for a new movement for worker’s rights.

These days we are working longer and harder than for decades. We’re spending more time commuting. And according to research by the New Economics Foundation and others, we’re not achieving more. We value hours at work more than work achieved. We are putting our people under unnecessary strain, damaging our health and mental health. And it is counter-productive. Most people in most jobs working more than 30 hours week are not achieving more than they would at 30 hours.

My vision of a Liberal Britain is one that puts people first, which strikes a new fair balance between work, rest and leisure. A 30 hour week as the standard – five days of six hours, or four of seven and a half.

What would this look like? An increase in the minimum wage because we expect people to work, improved access to public transport to cut the time and stress of commuting. Better access to flexible working, whether that’s working from home or flexible hours. Perhaps it’s no longer assuming that shops open 9 to 5.

Some of this will introduce costs. But it will also provide benefits – people will have more time, and importantly energy, to spend with friends and family. More time for civic society, from Neighbourhood Watch to the Liberal Democrats. More time to understand and appreciate the world around us. Better mental health, better transport for leisure,

As Liberals, when society has taken a path which is counter-productive, we shouldn’t be afraid to make the case for better way. This is my vision of a Liberal Britain for the future.