Tackling the Crisis in Work

Rebecca Long-Bailey was derided for suggesting that workers should have a right not to answer emails after hours – but unless Labour is prepared to tackle the changing world of work, the party's future is bleak.

After the temporary reprieve of the 2017 general election, the Labour Party has reverted to the pattern of decline common to left-liberal and social-democratic parties the world over since the financial crash. Its voter coalition of the working class, graduates, metropolitan renters, and ethnic minorities of all classes saw its fault lines exacerbated by Brexit; but geography, demography and an increasingly united right-wing are not going to make this alliance any easier to reassemble over the coming five years.

There is a shred of optimism for party members to take in the state of relative economic adventurousness Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have left the party with. The contest that followed Ed Miliband’s 2015 defeat was memorable mainly for candidates’ embarrassing overtures to ‘John Lewis couples and those who aspire to shop in Waitrose’ before the line shifted to ‘Project Fear’ once Corbyn’s unlikely candidacy began to gain momentum.

As fraught with factional anxieties as today’s contest is, ambitious and popular projects like the Green Industrial Revolution, renationalisation of utilities and investing in local government are the common sense of the leadership hustings, berated as Corbyn and McDonnell were when they originally proposed them. 

Facing a Tory Prime Minister seeking to associate himself with big-spending infrastructure projects, and in the context of climate catastrophe, such measures probably represent the bare minimum response. But it is worth recalling how impossible their broad acceptance outside the Labour left leadership was made to seem just a few years ago. 

But while the three frontrunner candidates pay lip service to Corbynomics, there are crucial differences of emphasis. Lisa Nandy, the candidate who has kept most distance from Corbyn, veers between claiming measures from the 2019 manifesto as her own innovation, and invoking the ‘hard choices’ rhetoric on the economy beloved of deficit hawks and technocrats everywhere. Keir Starmer, meanwhile, for all his alleged electability, sounds worryingly like Corbyn at his most naïve when he speaks of wanting to make ‘the moral case’ for left-wing policies. 

It is true that, in 2017 at least, Labour’s economic plans were designed to unambiguously benefit as large a coalition as possible, costing only those at the very top. Yet Corbyn’s own reflexive emphasis was often on the most vulnerable, asking voters to prioritise sympathy with those below them. This emotional register sat nicely with party members, but its political effectiveness has rather been tested to destruction. Corbyn defended Labour’s policies in moral terms, and voters chose instead the most ebulliently amoral Prime Minister in living memory.  

Rebecca Long-Bailey has been dismissed as the ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate, and so as everything Labour needs to change in order to reverse its fortunes. Yet the emerging emphasis of her campaign on the problem of work is the most plausible route to reassembling Labour’s coalition.

Labour needs to find – or invent – a common thread running through the otherwise incoherent segments of its coalition. Moral sympathy and inchoate talk of ‘values’ doesn’t cut it. But focussing on people’s working lives just might. The complaints people make about their work, after all, are surprisingly uniform across regions, sectors and even social classes. 

As Mareile Pfannebecker and I detail in our new book, Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism, forms of over-work, de-skilling, vulnerability to automation, fluctuation of remit, and humiliating emotional labour that we are accustomed to associating with low-paid service jobs have, in recent decades, crept up the social scale.

The bourgeois professions see more and more of their distinctiveness crowded out by interchangeable bureaucratic tasks and ‘customer-facing’ support work. Solicitors become up-selling salespeople, doctors become general lifestyle advisors, academics lecture their students in ‘employability’, and everyone does their own admin.  

High-end consultants and precarious Uber drivers can be equally ‘overemployed’ when they have to work more hours than is healthy to perform their job; while new graduates from affluent backgrounds and older manual labourers might both be ‘underemployed’ if they cannot find full-time or permanent work, or end up stuck in jobs that fall below their skill set.

At the lower end of the scale, the employed and unemployed have started to look uncannily similar, working in the same supermarket branches (one as a job, the other as a condition of her benefits), eating from the same foodbanks, claiming the same Universal Credit, and sleeping in the same sheltered accommodation.

Like every popular policy announced by the Labour Left since 2015, Long-Bailey’s call to give workers the right to ignore work emails outside working hours has been met with contempt from liberal pundits. Yet it captures a point of stress that is familiar to people in a great diversity of kinds of work, and across pay-bands. Crucially, it identifies an obvious injustice – the 2 billion unpaid hours put in by the UK workforce – without asking anyone to feel sorry for anybody else. 

While Nandy has previously called for the party to remain neutral in industrial disputes, Long-Bailey has committed to maintaining greater closeness between party and unions seen during the Corbyn period. This will embolden those Corbynites who hoped Labour’s move to the left would encourage unions to use digital technology to become more responsive to their members, while getting better at organising in an age of short-term precarious work. But Long-Bailey’s campaign is also proposing a vision for a more integrated relationship between party and unions at the grassroots level.

The electoral innovation of the Corbyn era was its rapid mobilisation of unprecedented thousands of activists to do otherwise conventional campaigning during election periods. This seemed like a panacea in 2017, but it met its match in 2019.

In her recent speech in Salford, Long-Bailey invoked the idea of Labour offering resources to local campaigners and interest groups, giving them political education, encouraging them to be active in their union on behalf of colleagues, and so spreading and normalising Labour ideas at work. What Long-Bailey is proposing is a more patient process of gaining trust for the party in the workplace: one of the spaces where Labour’s policies will affect people most. 

As Shadow Business Secretary, Long-Bailey was an architect of the Green Industrial Revolution based on the fact that an environmentally sustainable economy is going to require a lot of new jobs to build it, and ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’ to ensure these new jobs don’t simply repeat the alienation of the old ones, but give workers a genuine democratic stake in their working environment.

She now admits that the 2019 manifesto failed to produce a uniting narrative to show how its radical policies interrelate. Brexit, meanwhile, allowed Boris Johnson to unite around a single cultural project and narrative groups which are – in their way – every bit as disparate as Labour’s. Returning Labour to people’s daily experiences of ‘labour’ could do the same for Long-Bailey.