Tuesday 7 May 2019 12:18 am

Fix Brexit, unlock investment – and maybe we can all work a little less

Did you enjoy your day off yesterday? Nice, wasn’t it, coming so soon after the extended Easter break? Plus there’s another bank holiday in just three weeks from now. Happy days.

Square Mile workaholics aside, most of us would prefer to have a little more leisure and a little less time in the office – and the example set by some other countries shows that it is possible. A thoughtful article by economist Douglas McWilliams, published yesterday, noted that the Netherlands has the shortest working week in the world, at 29 hours, with many Dutch folk deciding to stay at home altogether on Fridays.

Any such shift to a shorter working week comes with costs, however. Thus when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party floats the idea of a four-day week, eyebrows are raised. Corbyn and John McDonnell want to radically increase government spending and introduce an array of growth-sapping policies – the exact opposite of what is needed if we are to become wealthy enough to reduce our working hours.

McWilliams, on the contrary, acknowledges an inevitable hit to the Treasury, necessitating a slimmer or significantly more-efficient state. Other factors that would help include lower housing costs and a big jump in productivity. While the former could be easily delivered through supply-side reforms, the latter remains a puzzle.

Productivity has been dire in the UK since the financial crisis, sitting around 16 per cent lower than peer economies. The outlook also remains grim, with a recent study from the US predicting that we will be the only advanced economy to experience falling productivity growth in 2019.

Factors behind the dip are numerous but also debatable. The proliferation of so-called zombie companies, underperforming businesses that refuse to die, is believed to be one factor; a study published yesterday by KPMG says that up to 14 per cent of listed UK companies had “zombie symptoms” last year, a scarily-high figure.

Another is a long-running lack of investment. Last month Bank of England governor Mark Carney argued that the political stalemate surrounding Brexit has held back investment at the exact time that other factors suggest it should be unlocked. It is a credible argument, and while there is no silver bullet to the productivity problem, Britain’s politicians could certainly help by putting in some long hours to resolve the mess they have got us all into.