Against the Work Fetish

Glen Newey

From Glasgow to Brighton to Manchester, the party conference roadshow grinds on and, as every year, the big relief with the Tory do is that it’s the last one. The party shindies – still called ‘conferences’, but rallies in all but name – offer televiewers (and who watches this stuff?) a window on Totalitaria, a Lego Pyongyang. One-liners are delivered, opponents are trashed, and it often takes the somnolent claque a while to cotton on that they’ve missed their cue to ovate. Speakers offer little in‐jokes to nervous titters from the floor. Why don’t the party managers go the whole hog and have the rank and vile simply holding up cards, North Korea-style, to make a big smiley face when Osborne or Pickles reaches a claptrap moment? The telly coverage, too, is a pain in the arse, with kitsch‐complicit cutaway shots from whichever hack is on the rostrum, to their spouse or arch-enemy, to humanise the whole ghastly spectacle.

At these gatherings there’s usually a slug‐line coined to sum up the event in all its effervescent vacuity. For the Conservatives in Manchester, it’s ‘For Hardworking People’, which features not just in the conference hall, but also – inescapably for the lanyarded journos, who have to be there, and those unaccountably attending of their own free will – over the venue’s main entrance. It’s a bit like ‘This is Anfield’ over the players’ tunnel at Liverpool FC, there to focus the mind of friends and cow those of foes.

What, in the end, is so marvellous about ‘hardworking people’? (‘Say what you like about George Osborne/Torquemada/Himmler, he used to put in an 18‐hour day.’) For Osborne, work isn’t just a means to end; it’s an end in itself. We’re a long way from Keynes’s 1930 prediction that automation would leave people needing to work only a couple of hours a day. One good question to put to work evangelists is whether they think working hours are longer in the UK or Germany. In fact UK workers average 1654 hours a year against just 1393 in Germany, who are only one notch about Europe’s champion dossers, the Dutch. Who comes out on top? The Greeks, with a Stakhanovite 2034 hours a year. That’s working well for them.

The work fetish does a number of useful jobs for the Bullingdonian tendency. As yesterday’s snarling address by Chris Grayling indicated, the Tories are keen to tap into the xenophobia of the fabled median voter. Non-EU students, for instance, get whacked by the Home Office because, absurdly, they’re included in the immigration figures; surely they’re coming here to work, but then (on the quantity theory of jobs) they’re depriving Brits of their right (read: duty) not to shirk. Sweatshops are, by definition, fine; health and safety laws to safeguard workers an imposition from ‘Brussels’. And, above all, the Tories gloss the casino capitalist myth that in the ‘free market’ rewards are commensurate with merit – that is, with effort. One of the cleaners at my last employer had worked there for over thirty years, arriving at 7 each morning, and was still, aged 66, on the minimum wage. She had to buy her own Ajax.

There is the Leo Straussian possibility that Osborne, wallpaper dynast and trust-fund boy, in fact doesn’t mean any of the crap that he seems to be saying, and is a crypto-commie fifth columnist. In last year’s speech he even managed to slip in a ‘Workers of the world unite’ – surely a Tory conference first – during a paean to people who never see their families because they work too hard. This year he lauded Communist China as, along with India, new converts to ‘freedom and free markets’ – the two always go together, because they amount to the same thing. And we have it from an impeccable source that, in the words of another over‐the‐portal slogan, work makes free.


  • 1 October 2013 at 3:00pm
    David Timoney says:
    Given that the average age of a Conservative Party member is now 68, the chief irony of the strapline is that the bulk of the "hardworking" people in the conference hall are likely to be corporate lobbyists and SPADs.

    As for the wider audience, the self-identifying "hardworking" are often people for whom the modern fetish of work is an expression of their increasing anxiety as technological change erodes the security of whitecollar careers. They are not represented by anyone in the hall.

  • 3 October 2013 at 1:51pm
    robin bale says:
    Well Duncan Smith actually let the cat out of the bag as can be seen here: