“If a university lecturer deserves a three month sabbatical, then why doesn’t a coal miner?” The question was legitimate, but no-one at the meeting attempted to answer the man’s question. No-one at a Labour Party branch gathering in the 1970s would have challenged the thought that those who laboured underground in severe conditions did not merit extended leave as much as those who spent their days in airy lecture halls and book-filled studies, but everyone knew that this was not the way of the world: working class people were not treated with a parity of esteem. No-one challenged the assumptions that some people somehow deserved a better life than others, that belonging to one social class or profession automatically meant one should expect a certain quality of life, be it good or bad.
In the years that followed, optimists would assert that a new time was coming, that technology meant we should prepare for an age of lewisite, that work would not be onerous, that hours would be short, that remuneration would be generous, that working people would retire in their fifties on secure and generous pensions.
The prospect of the world foreseen by the optimists disappeared, not because it was not possible, but because neoliberalism was embraced as the path to prosperity. Perhaps it should be “neoliberalism” in inverted commas because the economic philosophy embraced was a far remove from the truly free markets envisaged by Milton Friedman and other thinkers on the right. The privisation of state assets did little to enhance competition and much to enhance the wealth of those already rich, whilst the nationalisation of private debt at the time of the banking crisis flew in the face of free market economics and safeguarded the wealth of the reckless. Technology, far from being used to the benefit of all, has instead been used for deskilling or eliminating jobs; the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest being wider than ever before.
There is no economic reason why working people should not enjoy terms and conditions comparable with those who enjoy salaried posts and short hours. There is sufficient wealth for everyone to enjoy a good quality of life, a quality of life assumed in the social democracies of the Nordic countries. Zero hours contracts, minimum wages far below the level required to aspire to having one’s own home, terms of employment that would be regarded as intolerable by many European workers, these are not necessities, they are a matter of political choice.
Attending a local Labour Party meeting on Saturday, for the first time since the 1970s, perhaps a question for the meeting would be why working people should not have sabbatical leave.