If the Tories want to be the party for working people they need to ditch the ‘work longer’ messaging

Most politicians understand the basic edict of “when you’re in a hole, stop digging”. But when Home Office minister Rachel Maclean was asked about Government plans to help with the cost of living today, she swapped a spade for a JCB digger.

Quizzed on demands to do more to support people struggling with household bills, the minister sought to look at the bigger picture. “Over the long term we need to have a plan to grow the economy and make sure that people are able to protect themselves better – whether that is by taking on more hours or moving to a better paid job,” she said.

When pressed by Sky News’ Kay Burley over evidence that some people were working three jobs but still having to visit food banks, Maclean doubled down: “We have often heard in the past when people are facing problems with their budgets that one of the obstacles – and it may not be for everybody – is about being able to take on more hours or even move to a better-paid job. “

Of course, the minister may have been trying (however clumsily) to say how the benefit system prevents people from working more hours should they choose to. But for millions facing soaring energy and food bills, it probably instead sounds like a Tory MP saying: “Stop moaning, just work harder!” No wonder, some people are already very upset.

The PM’s official spokesman sought to defend Maclean, while stressing that extra hours won’t suit everyone. “Individuals make decisions on what’s right for them and their families, that might not be the approach for every individual,” he said.

It’s worth remembering that around 40 per cent of people on Universal Credit are in work, using the benefit to top up their low wages to make ends meet. They have something called the “Work Allowance”, the amount you can earn before benefit starts to be taken away. For every £ 1 you earn above your Work Allowance, your Universal Credit payment will be reduced by 55p.

This so-called “taper rate” was cut from 63p to 55p by Rishi Sunak in the last Budget, what he has hailed as a £ 2bn tax cut for the lowest earners. He also increased the Work Allowance by an extra £ 500 a year.

Critics point out that while such moves were welcome they only nibbled at the problem. Even after the changes, it remains an astonishing fact that in the UK the effective tax rate for people on Universal Credit is higher than that paid by the very wealthy.

If you earn more than £ 150,000 a year, you keep 51.75p of every extra pound you earn (45p goes to income tax, 3.25p to National Insurance). If you’re a low earner on Universal Credit, you keep just 45p of every extra pound you earn (55p taken away in benefit). Yes, a wealthy company boss can pay proportionately less tax than the cleaner who cleans his office than him.

The living standards emergency currently being experienced by millions was dramatically underlined by the Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey on Monday too. With energy bills set to rocket further this autumn, he warned of a “very real income shock” from global gas prices and “apocalyptic” food prices caused by the war in Ukraine.

When previously quizzed by MPs earlier this year, Bailey said he couldn’t remember his salary. “It’s somewhere over £ 500,000 – I can’t tell you exactly what it was, I don’t carry that around in my head, ”he said.

Yet on Monday, he said the answer to the cost of living crisis was not to demand a higher salary. “I do think people, particularly people who are on higher earnings, should think and reflect on asking for high wage increases,” he said. With media skills like that, it felt like he was trying to outdo Maclean in the tone deaf awards.

What makes Maclean’s remarks sound even more out of touch is that UK workers put in longer hours than any country in the EU. TUC research in 2019 found Brits worked the equivalent to an extra two and a half weeks a year.

And back in 2012 a group of ambitious young Tory MPs co-authored in “Britannia Unchained” pamphlet that declared that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”. That group included four MPs who are now Cabinet ministers: Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, Kwasi Kwarteng and Priti Patel.

More broadly, the Government is treading a dangerous path on workers’ rights. A key plank of its pitch to working class voters at the 2019 general election, particularly in the north and midlands, was that the Conservatives were now “the party of the workers”. And a post-Brexit Britain would enhance, not reduce, those rights.

Yet although the December 2019 Queen’s Speech mentioned plans for an Employment Bill, it announced in 2021 it would introduce one only when Parliamentary time allowed. And last week, it was again missing from the 38 bills outlined by the Government.

The risk is that the Conservatives’ “work longer” stance looks out of step with the 21st century workplace. Public opinion is hugely in favor of working from home, which also helps boost small town economies rather than cities which rely on commuting (Burnley is the second best area in the UK to recruit for remote working).

More importantly, for all those many people whose hands-on jobs mean they can’t work from home, flexible working is often the best way to get a salary in the first place. Without affordable childcare (which makes up 35.7 per cent of a couple’s average earnings) or flexible working, many parents simply can’t get any hours, let alone longer hours, to suit them.

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The Tory manifesto appeared to recognize the need for a sea-change and pledged to consult making “flexible working” the default option. But that pledge has since been abandoned and the Employment Bill that was meant to enact it is in limboland.

Contrary to claims from some MPs that they are “workshy”, most Brits are unafraid of hard work. They will put in the extra hours (scandalously, sometimes through unpaid overtime) to better their lives, whether that’s for a holiday or to buy their kids newer clothes. However, putting in extra hours simply to pay for basics like food and fuel may make many think there’s something rotten with the entire system.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said recently there was “a whiff of something Dickensian” about Jacob Rees-Mogg’s passive-aggressive notes to civil servants to replace hybrid working with full-time desk presenteeism. The truly Dickensian stink that may get up the voters’ noses is any call for them to work harder and longer, just to keep their heads above water.

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