If I were to advise David Cameron on the economy, I would suggest something that might force him to spit out his latte in disgust. Nevertheless, it is a strategy that would increase employment, decrease benefit spending, and free up public money which could be used to assist the regional economies which are being turned into scorched earth by current dogmatic Tory policies: embrace the Working Time Directive (WTD).
The heart is being torn painfully from the most vulnerable and poorest neighbourhoods in the name of 'market confidence' yet still we see unemployment figures rise, poverty levels rocket, and the continuing immolation of those sectors that traditionally lift working classes, ethnic minorities and women out of unemployment and benefit dependency.
The welfare bill is ballooning, thanks largely to Conservative indifference to rocketing joblessness in constituencies where they have no chance of electoral success. Even in 'true blue' areas, unemployment is creeping upwards whilst incumbent MPs focus attention on clamouring for promotion, rather than opening their eyes to the growing legions of jobless generations who will inflate the UK benefit bill for decades to come.
The right leaning group 'Open Europe' claim that a WTD without opt out could cost up to £11bn per year. These are frighteningly large figures, but when taken in the context of a benefit budget covering Job Seekers Allowance, Housing Benefit and Income Support of over £20bn per year, the opportunity for savings, deficit reduction, regeneration and increased employment become more obvious.
If the government were to set aside their distaste for EU regulation, natural contempt for workers rights and hostility to positive change, they would see that the end to the WTD opt out will no more destroy the economy than the minimum wage did, despite Tory claims at the time.
At a time of massive job shortages, rocketing unemployment and increasing social disconnection, it's surely logical to seriously consider the positive effects of a directive that, by nature, requires creation of jobs in order to fulfil its requirement? Placing people in work reduces unemployment, lowers benefit liabilities, stimulates the economy, and instils the work ethic that has skipped generations.
Positive effects of increased employment to disadvantaged neighbourhoods bring reductions in anti-social behaviour, and a feeling of personal pride that for many simply does not exist. It is plain to see that every penny used to implement such policies is a penny well spent. More importantly, such expenditure would save us money in the longer term.
Admittedly, the full implementation of the WTD would come at a cost, but this cost needs to be valued over the longer term, for the greater good, in the face of the bigger picture, bringing substantial social and industrial benefits.
The UK is an economy surviving on institutionalised overtime. We work harder, for longer, with fewer bank holidays than our neighbours. We have an adversarial, outdated approach to industrial relations, and successive governments have crowed about British 'competitiveness' Yet still we lag behind many other economies in terms of recovery, growth, poverty and investment. If we were running our economy in the best way, we would surely be lifting well clear of recession and racing towards economic nirvana, rather than speeding toward a fiscal tundra.
We need higher productivity, better work/life balance, and fresh approaches that will bring lower sickness rates, lower absenteeism, and greater profitability for our industries. The current system does not create these things, and needs to be consigned to history.
The economic downturn should be a watershed. The calamitous failure of strategies that scorned manufacturing and practical skills, instead worshipping financial services and all the confidence trickery that it brings, alongside an approach of selling the labour and toil of the most educationally disadvantaged and financial vulnerable for the lowest price needs to be abandoned.
Engagement by management with Unions needs to be encouraged, as does a greater openness to new ways of working on the part of those unions.
We need to ask ourselves what kind of society we want. Do we want the status quo to prevail, whereby millionaires choose their tax contribution rates, poorer communities are left to decay and stagnate, and those fortunate enough to work are flogged into later retirement, scant pension provision and an early grave? Or do we want higher employment, lower sickness/absenteeism rates, better work/life balance, economic stimulation, better employee engagement, greater profitability and productivity, and true recognition of our manufacturing abilities?
The industry of exploitation has failed as spectacularly as the industry of investment banking. This government dines hungrily on its cosiness to the city, and its fabricated reputation for economic competence. For the appetite that we all hold for economic success to be satisfied however, the Tories, as well as business at large, urgently need to swap dining partners and choose their diet from a new menu.
(Also published by the London Progressive Journal)