BRIGHTON, England (Reuters) - Britain’s Labour Party pledged on Monday to mobilise financial resources on a scale not seen since the country was rebuilt after World War Two, promising a four-day working week and to spend more on social services if it gets into power.
Out of office for nearly a decade, Labour is hoping to use the Brexit chaos engulfing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party to win control of the world’s fifth largest economy at an election expected to be called later this year.
Presenting himself as Britain’s finance minister in waiting at Labour’s annual conference in Brighton, veteran left-winger John McDonnell explained how he would reshape the pro-business, free-market orthodoxy that has guided the country for decades.
“We’re mobilising financial resources on a scale not seen since the post-War reconstruction to achieve the twin goals of a sustainable future and a better today,” said McDonnell, who has spent a lifetime campaigning to rip up the capitalist system.
With Johnson fighting to keep his divided party together over Brexit, and huge uncertainty over how, when, or even if, Britain will leave the European Union, the result of a national election is hard to predict.
The Labour Party’s plans for widespread nationalisation, higher public spending, higher taxes and forcing large corporations to give workers shares, have provoked deep concern among investors and business lobby groups.
“With Brexit and global trade uncertainty to contend with, Labour should be reaching for the carrot rather than the stick in its approach to business and economic growth,” said Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce.
In his speech, McDonnell also repeated Labour’s promise to hold a second referendum on leaving the European Union, warning that Johnson’s government was fuelling uncertainty and undermining democracy with its Brexit policy.
McDonnell’s most eye-catching announcement was a pledge to reduce the average working week to 32 hours within a decade, from about 37 hours now, as measured by the Office for National Statistics.
“It will be a shorter working week with no loss of pay,” McDonnell said to loud cheers from party members gathered in the English seaside resort.
Labour said this could be achieved by boosting the power of collective bargaining, creating an independent body to gradually raise holiday entitlements and ending a British opt out from EU directives on how many hours people can work per week.
“Who would turn down a four day week on the same pay? But without productivity gains it would push many businesses into loss,” said Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI business lobby group.
Polling firm YouGov said almost two thirds of businesses backed a four-day working week, citing a survey of 502 business managers in June and July, while separate data showed 63% of workers supported working fewer hours.
McDonnell also pledged to pump billions into social care, primarily to provide the elderly with free assistance for basic tasks such as cooking and bathing.
“Nothing is more important than dignity in retirement for those who have built our country and given younger generations the world we live in today,” McDonnell said.
The care policy is estimated to cost 6 billion pounds ($7.5 billion) in 2020/21, rising to 8 billion a year by 2030/31.
The party did not detail how it would be funded but pointed to its last election manifesto which said taxes would rise to boost spending on the wider social care system.
McDonnell has already backed new taxes on Britain’s financial services sector, and, in the 2017 election campaign, said he would raise income taxes on the highest earners.
Labour’s personal care policy addresses a sensitive subject for Britain’s ageing population - a demographic that votes in high numbers and can swing election outcomes.
In the 2017 election, a Conservative policy seen as unfairly penalising dementia sufferers prompted a decline in the party’s ratings and was cited as a major factor behind a disastrous result for then-prime minister Theresa May.
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Reporting by William James; editing by David Clarke