A Labour government would implement a four-day working week for Britons within the next decade, shadow chancellor John McDonnell has told the party’s conference in Brighton.
Declaring that “we should work to live, not live to work”, Mr McDonnell promised a Labour administration would introduce “a shorter working week with no loss of pay”.
“The next Labour government will put in place the changes needed to reduce average full-time hours to 32 a week within the next decade,” he told party members.
Mr McDonnell revealed Labour would look to achieve this by ending the UK’s opt-out from the EU’s working time directive, which states that workers must not put in more than an average of 48 hours’ work per week.
Most adult workers in the UK have been able to opt-out of the directive – and therefore work more than 48 hours per week – since it was introduced in 1993.
Mr McDonnell also announced his plans for a Labour government to establish a Working Time Commission, which would recommend increasing holiday entitlements for Britons “as quickly as possible without increasing unemployment”.
“Thanks to past Labour governments but mainly thanks to the trade union movement, the average full-time working week fell from nearly 65 hours in the 1860s to 43 hours in the 1970s,” the shadow chancellor said.
“As society got richer, we could spend fewer hours at work. But in recent decades progress has stalled.
“People in our country today work the longest average full-time hours in Europe apart from Greece and Austria.
“And since the 1980s the link between increasing productivity matched by expanding free time has been broken.
“It’s time to put that right.”
There would not be a French-style cap on weekly working hours, instead progress to the 32-hour goal would be assessed based on the annual average figure compiled by the Office for National Statistics.
The average working week was 37.1 hours last year, according to ONS figures.
Mr McDonnell also used his conference speech to promise:
Labour’s conference in Brighton has so far been dominated by divisions over Brexit, with party members set to hold a crunch vote on party policy later on Monday afternoon.
Mr McDonnell told party members of his personal preference for the UK to stay in the EU, as he supported voters being offered a referendum choice between Remain or a Brexit deal.
He said: “Some of you will know I have said I will campaign for Remain. But let me make it clear that I profoundly respect those who support a genuine alternative.”
Momentum said they were “delighted” by Mr McDonnell’s announcement on a four-day working week, which the left-wing activist group has pushed for.
Laura Parker, Momentum’s national coordinator, said: “This is what a democratic party looks like.
“Policy is being written by the movement, with members and the leadership working hand in hand to write the next manifesto and deliver the ambitious, radical policies we need to win the next election.”
The GMB union also hailed Mr McDonnell’s “ground-breaking vision for our country that would change the lives of millions of people”.
But the announcement receieved a cooler reception among business groups.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “Business shares the shadow chancellor’s aim of a fairer economy.
“But too many of Labour’s policies would make this harder to achieve, harming the very people they are trying to help.
“Who would turn down a four-day week on the same pay? But without productivity gains it would push many businesses into loss.”
Edwin Morgan, the interim director-general of the Institute of Directors, said: “Labour’s working week policy may be eye-catching, but it puts the cart before the horse.
“The only way to reduce hours while maintaining pay is by improving productivity.
“Companies agree with the shadow chancellor that the UK has a productivity problem, and want to work with any government to tackle it, but blunt regulation on working hours won’t get to the underlying issues.”
Conservative MP Rishi Sunak, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said: “John McDonnell offers nothing but failed ideas which would wreck our economy, harm businesses and drive out investment.
“Far from delivering for the many, McDonnell’s damaging plans would leave families with less money in their pockets and fewer jobs. Labour would turn back the clock, with working people paying the price.”