The Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill has had its first reading in the House of Lords on March 28th. The second reading is scheduled for April 24th and the government hopes that it will be passed and receive Royal Assent at the beginning of May.
When the policy was announced George Osborne said that “there might be lessons to be learnt.” He’s a clever man, George. There’s an election in a couple of years and a few hours extra trading every week for the next two years wouldn’t do the numbers any harm.
Memorably, this was the issue on which Thatcher was handed her only Parliamentary defeat – and that by a strange alliance of traditionalist Tories and the Labour Party, often behind Liberal MP David Alton. They joined a campaign which included the churches, unions and – let’s not forget – a good number of small businesses. In the event of Osborne et al pushing for permanent deregulation, would this alliance be reassembled? It’s certainly more difficult to imagine now. Uneasy relationships with the Unions makes it hard to see Labour taking up ‘a workers’ cause’ with gusto, especially in cases which are seen to be against the interests of the broader public.
More importantly, Party sentiment is ever more socially liberal. It is fairly obvious that there are millions of people who do shop on Sunday, so on exactly what basis should they be prevented from doing so? Well, there are lots of un-religious reasons – for instance, it’s one of the few times when local corner/convenience stores hold any conceivable advantage over the big supermarkets. Even so, it feels authoritarian. Given the sharpness of the debate on gay marriage, there will be plenty of members who will be nervous about joining a campaign tinged with religious rhetoric – just another chance for the churches to try and dictate what people should and shouldn’t be doing, only this time with Labour’s help?
Since it’s Easter, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that Jesus was actually rather lax on the issue of the observance of the Jewish Sabbath. The Gospels have him scandalising his contemporaries by performing healings, or allowing his disciples to pick ears of corn. In Hebrew, Sabbath simply means ‘stop’ – it is a practice founded on the view that on the seventh day of creation God did exactly that, and human beings should do likewise. After one of these Sabbath day controversies, Jesus insisted “My Father is always at his work to this very day.” The Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) and the ‘Lord’s Day’ (Sunday – preferred by Christians because of the day of Jesus’ resurrection) are actually quite different things. The one acknowledges God and humanity at rest, the other celebrates that God is at work.
So, from a religious point of view, what’s the problem? It’s still oddly embarrassing when you run into one of your co-religionists in ASDA after the service, but nothing more (unless you happen to be reading this in the Western Isles). The issue is actually more complex than that, and in my mind is a symbolic debate for Labour, similar to the proposal last year to sell off England’s forests. It’s about the limits of the market, and the raison d’être of the party in the 21st century.
Fifty years ago, the normative experience of a Labour supporter was that of a worker-citizen. The Labour Party existed, in alliance with the unions, to defend his or her interests. Resistance of the market meant placing limits on the amount of work that the economy could demand, and ensure that the worker received a fair share of the profits generated. Now, the normative experience is of a consumer-citizen. The logic of the financial–sector–led, post-industrial economy is not primarily that most people should be engaged in as much productive work as possible, but rather that they should consume as many goods and services, by borrowing if necessary. Industrial output is reported with less pathos than the number of barbecues bought during a major football tournament, or sales of unwanted gifts at Christmas. In this economy, there is precious little ‘rest’ (Sabbath in the Jewish sense) or time for celebration (Sabbath in the Christian sense). There’s only work and ‘leisure’ which, at best, is becoming synonymous with being entertained and, at worst, disappearing underneath the wall to wall task of consumption.
When Christians worry vaguely about ‘consumerism’, it is these changes to which they are sensitive. Generally, I think that life before de-regulation of Sunday trading was both a little harder (if a moderate level of inconvenience can be called hard), but better. I can remember a time when there was absolutely no prospect of ending up in a supermarket, which for a child was not at all unhappy. But this is not a Monty Python-esque ‘back in my day’ argument. The question at play is, in the face of market logic and the idolisation of choice, does Labour offer any account of the good life?
So, there’s still the task of offering a voice for the hundreds of thousands of shop workers who’ll be obliged to work longer hours. We’re not talking about Christians, though even they have had little success when they have sought in the courts to be allowed not to work on Sundays. Rather, this is about ‘hard working families’, which all political parties claim rhetorically to support. In straightened times, one tangible benefit they could be afforded is the possibility of a shared day off.
But then there’s the task of relieving the consumer, or at least acknowledging that people are not simply or only consumers, and therein imagining that there are other economic options. It’s the consumption-led growth model that has been the problem, and to persist with it surely offers no solution. There’s only so much money to be squeezed out of stagnant wage packets in a stagnant economy. Or perhaps George wants to force the public back into the arms of cheap and not-so-cheap credit? If that’s what higher consumer confidence means, who needs it?
It’s de rigueur to frown on any attempt to ‘restrict choice’ – mainly because choice is treated as the highest good, even above the freedom which it points to. An alliance against deregulation of Sunday trading would not be alliance of those who want to constrain choice, but of those who think that the markets might impose limits on freedoms, and thus should be regulated.
Or as Jesus would say to George, “the economy is made for people, not people for the economy”.