Can Hodge Tip the Work Balance?

Article excerpt

How interventionist should the Government be in curbing Britain's work-till-you-drop culture? Margaret Hodge, the employment minister wrestling with the dilemma, is setting out to convince bosses in the masculine corporate citadel that flexibility pays off. Peter Stanford reports

Margaret Hodge must sometimes look at colleagues who've made it to the cabinet and wonder what might have been. When Labour was collectively getting its act together in the late 1980s, she was, as the long-serving leader of Islington Council, only slightly less prominent than her then next-door neighbour Tony Blair. Today she is decidedly low-key, battling it out in the trenches at the Department for Education and Employment amid the faceless battalions of junior ministers.

Her eclipse came about mainly because Hodge entered parliament only in June 1994, a long time after those she describes as 'my contemporaries' -- David Blunkett and Jack Straw, both now at the Downing Street top table. She was waiting until her four children grew up. There is not much you can tell her about the dilemmas of working mothers caught between career and family.

'I made choices,' she says. 'You can't pretend that having children doesn't change your life. It does. If House of Commons hours had been different, perhaps I might have thought about it earlier, but I have no regrets.'

Hodge's experience -- albeit lived out in the cocooned world of the Islington bourgeoisie with a nanny and a supportive husband who runs his own law practice -- makes her a fitting spokesperson for the government's much-vaunted plans to alter Britain's working practices: the so-called work/life balance that is the jewel in the crown of an otherwise dullish ministerial brief. In the past this was part of the 'family friendly' policies, but New Labour is nothing if not adept at rebranding. Work/life insists that the question is not just about working mothers. It concerns everyone with a job.

Work/life is, Margaret Hodge says, 'an issue whose time has come'. You might be forgiven for thinking that she would say that, since it is her first chance in ages to make a splash on the national stage, but the weight of evidence to back up her claim is compelling. Many appear fed up with Britain's long-hours culture, Of the seven million people in the European Union who work more than 48 hours a week, half of them are in this country. A recent survey by the Manchester School of Management found a sample of 5,000 managers increasingly anxious about working lives that trespass into evenings and weekends. Nearly all respondents -- and these were people supposedly in charge of setting working patterns in the corporate structure -- felt that their jobs were damaging their health, their marriages and their family.

Hodge is more than happy to talk about her own experiences in the work/life struggle. 'When my kids were young, I was working, but as leader at Islington. Because I was the boss I could make the rules. And they were strict to allow everyone a work/life balance. No meetings, for example, between 3.30pm and 7.30pm, which is a crucial time with children.'

When local parties were selecting for the 1992 General Election, she was approached for a number of seats. One in particular was very tempting. 'I remember my daughter, who was 17 at the time and doing her A-levels, saying to me: "Don't you dare, mum, or I'll never talk to you again." It was a tough one, but I said no.'

But she is careful always to stress that this is not just a women's question. 'It may be driven by women's participation in the labour market -- something like 53% of women with children under five now have part-time or full-time jobs, a 20% increase in the last decade -- but its impact is right across men and women, families with children and anyone with responsibilities for adult care.' With such a broad sweep, she accepts that a 'huge cultural change' in business life is going to be necessary to bring to an end the British love affair with the Protestant work ethic. …