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A prime minister who understands work-life balance? Yes please

Performative presenteeism does not make a good worker, or a good prime minister. Just take Rishi Sunak - what has he actually accomplished with all the overtime he is so proud of? 

July 02 2024, 12.48pm

The Conservatives, a self-described party of family values, have found a new target: people spending time with their families after work hours. 

In an interview with Virgin Radio, the Labour leader said he plans to maintain his “protected time for the kids” every Friday, arguing it would make him a better prime minister: “I don’t believe in the theory that you’re a better decision maker if you don’t allow yourself the space to be a dad and have fun with your kids,” he said. “Actually it helps me. It takes me away from the pressure, it relaxes me and I think actually, not only is it that what I want to do as a dad, it is better.”

Cue confected outrage from the Right. The Sun and Daily Mail dubbed Starmer “Sir Sleepy” and a “part-time PM” respectively, while the Spectator declared: “Leading the country isn’t a normal 9-5 job. Decisions are required day and night, and the demands are all-consuming and relentless.” 

The data is clear: unhappy workers produce bad work. 

There’s no point trying to defend things Starmer didn’t say. At no point did Starmer suggest that he would point-blank refuse to work past 6pm on a Friday should he be required. If Putin launched an invasion of Western Europe, we can all safely presume that any prime minister would forego an evening with their kids. 

Instead, let’s applaud the helpful precedent his remarks set. Labour has pledged one of the biggest reforms of workers’ rights in a generation. Their New Deal for Workers would improve working conditions for millions of workers across the country, delivering a genuine living wage and banning exploitative conditions. It includes a policy billed as the “right to switch off”, preventing employers demanding endless access. “Good employers understand that for workers to stay motivated and resilient, they need to be able to ‘switch off’ and that a culture of presenteeism is damaging to morale and productivity,” Labour’s policy document reads. 

The party is correct. UK workers  have some of the weakest employment rights in the whole of Europe, far behind  the Nordic countries, France, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Vast swathes of the UK population are subject to insecure, poorly-paid working conditions, experiencing exploitative management practices that leave them vulnerable to ill-health. In 2023, roughly 1.8 million people reported suffering from work-related illnesses in the UK. Among them, 875,000 workers experienced poor mental health due to work-related factors, while 473,000 endured musculoskeletal disorders linked to their work. Meanwhile, the UK has performed particularly badly relative to comparable economies in terms of productivity. We sit in the bottom half of the rankings in the OECD, well below our European counterparts. The two are intrinsically linked: unhappy workers produce bad work. 

Adjusting the balance of power is vital not only for improving the health and wellbeing of the population, but also for prosperity. Keir Starmer, a long-established public servant with a history of civic service as the former Director for Public Prosecutions, is right to set this example in his own role. Every worker in this country has a right to their private life and no job is better served by a worker who is denied their free time. 

Once out of office, perhaps Conservatives will finally understand the value of down time - whether they like it or not. 

Take Rishi Sunak - proudly touted by the Spectator as making “a virtue of his punishing schedule in his relatively short time in office”. What good has this done his career, his legacy or the country? Sunak has failed to introduce any consequential legislation. His administration has been besieged by stagnation and failure. He has been unable to reduce NHS waiting lists, substantially reduce national debt or stop dangerous migrant crossings. 

More broadly, he has presented no ambition - cancelling large infrastructure projects such as HS2 and creating incoherent, unworkable policies such as the Rwanda bill and his smoking ban. Neither his personal approval ratings nor ability to hold his party together has been served by his work ethic. Instead, he has become wildly unpopular - and his party is set to encounter a historic defeat. Performative presenteeism does not make a good worker, or a good prime minister - and doesn’t too much for commercial companies, nevermind a good governing party. 

I can’t be alone in wanting my prime minister well-rested, energised and supported by loving, fulfilling relationships. Nor can I be alone in wanting a prime minister who understands the value of one’s private life and who does not believe the volume of labour defines an individual’s worth, competence or output. 

The Conservative party is in no position to criticise the work ethic of a leader who has a track record of achievement, when they themselves have presided over barely managed decline. Call their latest (and hopefully final!) attack, what it is - a death rattle. Once out of office, perhaps they will finally understand the value of down time - whether they like it or not.