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Tired Labour staffers chafe at holiday restrictions as election looms

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Labour staffers have complained of fatigue after enduring strict limits on holiday to guard against a snap general election, as Rishi Sunak keeps the opposition party guessing over when the UK will head to the polls.

Labour employees were told at the end of last year to avoid taking more than two consecutive days of leave in anticipation of an early election, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Sunak has yet to set a date for the general election, but has to hold it by January 2025. The prime minister has said his “working assumption” is for an election in the second half of 2024.

Labour staffers said the holiday restrictions were conveyed as guidance rather than, as one put it, a “North Korean style” ban. The party still allowed for individual circumstances and summer holidays. UK elections are not typically held in August when British schools are closed and MPs enjoy a lengthy parliamentary recess.

But one Labour policy adviser said people were “at the end of their tether” after being deprived of leave. “If we do get into government everyone is going to be exhausted at this rate,” they added.

Another adviser said that while some people had “sneakily avoided” the restrictions, most had obeyed.

The pressure on Labour employees comes as the party has angered some trade unions with changes to its package of worker rights reforms known as the “New Deal”. Among the promises Labour has weakened is a pledge to give workers the “right to disconnect”.

Labour’s approach contrasted with the Conservatives, where several Tory staffers said the ruling party had not yet set out any holiday restrictions. But they said the party probably would do so once an election had been called.

UK general election campaigns typically last six weeks between an announcement and polling day.

Asked whether being on a constant campaign footing had worn out staffers, Labour’s campaign chief Pat McFadden accepted that the “machine is revved quite high”.

“People are still entitled to leave, but generally there are parts of people’s lives that will have to wait until after the election,” McFadden told the Financial Times.

He said Labour staffers had battled through “by-election, after by-election, after by-election” for the past 18 months but were aware that efforts would need to increase when the general election was called.

In the aftermath of last week’s local polls in England and Wales when the Conservatives lost nearly half of all the council seats they were defending, the focus has shifted to the forthcoming general election.

Two Labour staffers said they had been told to expect to work six days a week during the election campaign.

The demands of the contest are also weighing on frontbenchers who expect to enter government after fighting a protracted campaign with little respite.

“We are all going to be dead by Christmas,” joked one member of the shadow cabinet.

A Labour spokesperson said: “Rishi Sunak is running scared of the public and refuses to set a date for the election, so we need to be ready for an election to be called at any moment.”

Sunak has until December to call a vote before parliament will be automatically dissolved, triggering a general election that will take place no later than January 28, 2025.

Labour has pushed the Tory leader to go to the polls sooner, but Sunak’s advisers hope delaying the contest could buy time for a more buoyant economy and lower interest rates.

Baroness Gabrielle Bertin, a Tory peer and former political aide to David Cameron when he was prime minister, said that in the lead-up to the 2010 election, party staffers were on permanent “red alert”.

“There was a holiday ban, weddings were moved. It had quite big implications for people,” she added.

Sunak has the advantage of controlling when an election will be called, but has to motivate a party that has been beset by division and scandal.

The Tories’ House of Commons majority has more than halved since the 2019 general election to 38 MPs as a result of multiple defections, resignations and suspensions. Labour has had a 20 percentage point lead over the Conservatives in polling since 2022, according to the FT’s poll tracker.

One aide to a senior Tory MP said the party’s poor polling had meant that some staffers’ mindsets were shifting towards a future in opposition.

“We’re already thinking about what’s going to happen after the election,” they said. “Who’s going to be left?”

Some former Tory aides are struggling to find work outside government in areas such as public affairs, given the widespread expectation that Labour will be in government by Christmas.

One senior Tory staffer appeared less concerned by a potential spike in workload at the election. Rather they were looking past the campaign to its aftermath, expecting to be out of government and outside the UK on a long “jaunt around South America”.

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