The sunshine was glorious. There was a new episode of Game of Thrones to watch in the middle of the night, and everyone seems to have forgotten about Brexit for a while. As bank holiday weekends go, it was a pretty good one. Under a Labour government, however, it would have been even better. Instead of going back to work, today would have been the St George’s Day holiday and we could all have slept in for another twenty-four hours. The trouble is, lots more state-directed time off is the last thing the British economy needs. Indeed, in a deregulated, flexible gig economy it is debatable whether we need bank holidays at all – and we certainly don’t need yet more of them.
In his four years as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn has at least perfected one fairly reliable political trick. He hands out lots of free stuff. His latest wheeze is four new bank holidays, one for each patron saint of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom. We’d get St George’s Day on April 23rd, St David’s Day on March 1st, St Patrick’s Day on March 17th, and St Andrew’s Day on November 30th. At a stroke, the number of bank holidays in the UK would go up to 12 from the current eight. Even better, that would be paid for completely by employers. It wouldn’t cost the government a penny.
There are, however, two problems with the proposal – one minor and one major. The small one is that the holidays all end up being bunched into the same time of the year. Add in Good Friday and Easter Monday, and we’d get five bank holidays spread across March and April. Even the schedulers at Sky might have a hard time rearranging enough Premier League fixtures to fill all the time off, and whoever orders in the Bank Holiday beer supplies at Tesco might have trouble keeping up. If we are going to have that many breaks, it might at least make sense to spread them out over the year. Or perhaps go the whole hog, and take a whole month off.
The more serious problem is that there is no evidence the UK needs the extra time off. We already have some of the worst productivity in the developed world, and, according to one analysis, four more day’s off might cost as much as £10 billion in lost output. Whether that figure is accurate or not, having more time off certainly won’t help.
Sure, we have relatively few bank holidays compared to most developed economies. But we also have one of the most flexible labour markets and one of the highest rates of employment. More significantly, we also have the fourth highest rate of part-time employment in the OECD. In fact, British companies and their staff have become very good at working out how much people want to work and when. What they don’t need is Jeremy Corbyn setting down rules on when they can clock in and when they can’t. They are perfectly capable of negotiating that for themselves.
In reality, we are moving towards a flexible, gig-based economy where we largely choose our own working hours. All the evidence suggests that, despite the flak it gets, most people are happier with that. They are more productive and they earn more as well. Labour’s bank holiday proposal is a throw-back to an industrial economy, where work, leisure and family life was completely regimented. It is completely out of tune with the way the modern world works – much like the rest of their economic policies.