What polling on working time shows about attitudes to Europe
The High Pay Centre launched the findings of some interesting polling yesterday, showing that social measures like the Working Time Directive and restrictions on bankers’ bonuses introduced by the European Union were popular with British people, but not well-understood to originate in Europe.
What I though was interesting was that, while European ‘red tape’ is unpopular according to opinion polls, the actual measures that the High Pay Centre identified were quite the reverse. And that leads on to a second reflection, which is that we need to be far better at making clear what rights working people have obtained from the European Union. Not so that people can be duly and humbly grateful, but because if those rights are set out in European directives, then those rights could be lost if the British government renegotiated our relationship with the EU, or if the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU.
Working people need to be better informed – and if we don’t do it, no one will – about what could be lost.
But the most interesting thing that I think the polling demonstrates is that the key question about the European Union for working people isn’t ‘should we stay or should we go’ but what sort of Europe do we want? It isn’t whether to reform the EU or exit from it, but what sort of reform.
In part, this is important because trade unions shouldn’t be trapped into defending the status quo, and with enforced austerity, deregulation and undermining collective bargaining, the EU’s status quo over the last few years has been toxic for trade unionists and working people generally.
But also it’s important because as the polling shows, the sort of labour market regulation and interventions on pay inequality that the High Pay Centre tested could be popular. It also suggests that we shouldn’t get locked into campaigning for ‘a European this’ or ‘a European that’, but just decide what we want to campaign for and then decide the most appropriate institution (eg Parliament or the EU) to deliver it.
Of course, the example picked by the High Pay Centre for polling – the Working Time Directive’s paid holidays, rest breaks and weekly limits on hours at work – is by no means the only positive employment right the EU has delivered. Part-timers’ rights, health and safety, parental and equality directives are all important too. And we could demand more – a Robin Hood Tax, more parental provision such as childcare, and a stronger voice for workers at work.
But the Working Time Directive is a symbol of this debate. We’re often told that David Cameron wouldn’t take away paid holidays, or that the rest of the EU wouldn’t let him. But he’s never ruled it out, the Directive was the only law mentioned twice in the Coalition Agreement in 2010, and we know what workers got when the British Parliament was last in sole charge of working time – no paid holidays! More importantly, the right-wing arguments that social Europe imposes intolerable financial burdens on Britain only add up if you include the cost of paid holidays – if they’re not planning to take them away, the sums don’t work!
In fact of course, paid holidays are no way a cost to Britain: employers have to pay for them, but the workers who benefited (mostly low paid) were getting the result of one of the most effective redistributive measures in recent times.
So, the trade union reform agenda for Europe should be about what reforms would benefit ordinary working people rather than business, so we can create a People’s Europe, or a Europe that works for workers!
This is an edited version of some introductory remarks I made at a High Pay Centre/Friedrich Ebert Stiftung event last night to look at the poll findings.