Later today, barring last minute developments, Labour and SNP MPs will temporarily unite with the Conservatives’ religious right to defeat the government’s plans to liberalise Sunday trading laws — echoing the defeat which Mrs Thatcher suffered on the same subject 30 years ago. The Left will chirrup, but why is it apparently in favour of keeping Sunday special when logic dictates that it ought to be against?
The Reverend Giles Fraser aside, the Left nowadays is generally quite anti-God –– or it is certainly against the promotion of Christianity as an established religion. In the diverse, multi-cultural society of its dreams, no religion is superior than any other and none of them should be trying to impose their beliefs on others. So why are they seeking to preserve the institution of the Christian Sabbath when surely they should be arguing that it is a form of discrimination against non-Christians? If you are a Muslim or a Jew there is nothing special about Sunday; on the contrary, you might find yourself expected to work on your own special day in order that Sunday be preserved as a day of national rest.
There are two possible explanations for the Left’s position on Sunday trading. Firstly, it is a knee-jerk response to what historically was seen as an attack on the workers. Thirty years ago, before Blair’s adoption of the EU social chapter, this would have been a reasonable argument: if shops were to open seven days of the week there might be pressure on shop assistants individually to work the full seven days. But with the 48 hour week — and with the religious discrimination at work laws forcing employers to give consideration to employees’ religious needs when setting their working hours — this objection doesn’t stand up. Large stores cannot simply order their staff to work the extra day. In any case, they don’t need to. They will find ample part-time workers to fill the extra hours.
Some may say that relaxation of Sunday trading laws will favour big retail businesses at the expense of local shops — which is true — but since when was Labour a champion of the petit bourgeoisie? There are a great number of laws passed by the Blair and Brown government — such as the Care Standards Act and the laws on licensing of houses of multiple occupation — which openly discriminated against small businesses.
The second explanation is one of pure expedience: the Left is against relaxation of Sunday trading laws because it knows this is one area where it knows that it can find enough support among Conservative rebels to inflict defeat on a majority Conservative government. This was, after all, the one subject on which a weakened Labour party managed to inflict defeat on a Thatcher government with a majority of 140.
The SNP is not even trying to hide its weaselly stance on the issue. It is deeply perverse for a party which allows unrestricted Sunday trading north of the border to seek to deny it south of the border. As for Labour, today’s vote will confirm those who see in Corbyn’s party a 1980s tribute act, trying to relive its brief moment of glory in what was otherwise a decade of Tory triumphalism.
Some might call the Left’s stance a pact with the devil. It would be more accurate — and irritate the Left even more — to call it a pact with God.