First coined by the American inventor Henry A. Wise Wood to describe the challenges faced following the First World War, "The New Normal" has since become a clichéd phrase applicable to any period in the aftermath of a crisis. For many it will now be forever tainted by its association with lockdowns, masks, furlough and the sensation of a life seemingly indefinitely put on pause. Yet despite these sobering connotations, this week it has emerged as the strapline for Labour's inchoate "new deal for working people".
Angela Rayner, in her role as senior Labour Party factotum, has embraced her recent appointment as Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, unveiling a five-point plan as part of Labour's summer strategy. Labour MPs may claim the plan is new, but it bears more than a passing resemblance to the policies first outlined in Labour's failed 2019 election manifesto. The thought process behind this is quite clear; the pandemic has not so much moved the goalposts as changed the method of scoring altogether. What didn't work before may now be ripe for a soft-reboot, safe in the knowledge that implementation should be at least three years away, and even then with a large caveat attached.
Labour intends to "make Britain the best place to work". If that sounds familiar it is because you may have seen it before. It was a pledge made during the 2019 General Election, on page 37 of the Conservative manifesto.
The timing of this announcement seems particularly galling given the revelation at the weekend that the Labour Party itself is currently using the same tactics it is now openly criticising, making a third of its own permanent employees redundant whilst hiring temporary staff on insecure contracts with inferior working conditions, a consequence of both Labour's drop in funding following the mass exodus of members under Starmer and multiple settlements with former staffers who sued the Party for antisemitism. A toxic working environment by any standards.
Given the number of jobs across the country, many of which are low-paid, dependent upon the daily presence and footfall of a commuting, office-based workforce, the announcement of a policy that pays lip-service to the millions employed in those satellite industries, across retail, services and hospitality, whilst simultaneously pledging to raise the real living wage to £10 an hour, is a proposal that simply does not stand up to scrutiny in a post-pandemic economy.
According to data from the Office of National Statistics less than half the population worked from home during the pandemic. In London that figure increases to over half, the only region where it does. It is surely no coincidence therefore that Labour has pushed this proposal as the focus of its campaign.
Their myopic inclination to appeal only to London's middle-classes shows a contempt for those who not only cannot take advantage of the policy but are in fact likely to be impacted negatively by it. The focus upon working from home as the headline policy shows where Labour believes its target demographic to be. Despite their period of reflection following the 2019 election defeat that focus does not appear to be upon the traditionally Labour seats that were lost.
Whilst hybrid working arrangements are undoubtedly here to stay, the longer-term impact of a significant shift toward working from home is yet to be seen. For every individual for whom working from home has been a mixture of novelty and convenience, there is another who has found it lonely and frustrating. For every business that has embraced remote teams, there is another that has struggled to grow without the cohesion that proximity creates.
As Angela Rayner dusts off Labour's Corbynite policies, the Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work would do well to consider why the future she describes looks uncannily like that proposed by Labour prior to the pandemic. There remains a significant element of the old normal which it might be unwise to overlook.
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