A Living Wage for Britain

During Blog Action Day, the Green Party advocates for raising the minimum wage to a living wage to t

I'm writing this late on Wednesday - Blog Action Day 2008 - and bloggers all over the world are posting on the subject of poverty. The poverty crisis in less developed countries - and Europe's crucial place in that as one of the causes and one of the main potential solutions - forms a large part of my work as an MEP. I've crossed swords many times with the now Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, who as European Trade Commissioner was very much in the 'problem' camp, and was delighted this week to be named MEP of the Year for Trade. But in this Blog Action Day post I'd like to look at solutions to poverty closer to home. People in the UK don't generally think of themselves as being in poverty, but many thousands are.

Total up the absolute basic living costs that families need to cover, and you get what’s known as a poverty threshold wage – and every study finds this to be already higher than the minimum wage set by the government.

But a real ‘living wage’ must also provide a secure margin so that the family involved does not fall into poverty and debt when it faces the kind of day-to-day challenges those of us who are better off can take in our stride: a broken kettle, the need to buy shoes for a growing child, the cost of a train journey to visit a sick relative.

The absolute minimum needed for a basic existence, calculated by this approach, shows that the minimum wage falls well short of what’s needed. More than a pound an hour short in fact. Every calculation of a living wage that has been done in towns and cities in the UK has found a living wage this year lies above seven pounds an hour. But from October this year, the minimum wage is just £5.73.

This means that anyone receiving the minimum wage is receiving poverty wages. And in 21st century Britain this is just not on.

If the Greens were in government, the national minimum wage would be set at least at the level of a real living wage. But meanwhile, we're pledged to use every piece of influence we can get to fight poverty pay.

In 2007, the lowest paid workers in the London Fire Brigade got a pay rise. Previously the people who clean fire stations were paid the national minimum wage, at that time just £5.35 per hour. But thanks to the work of the London Living Wage Unit, this changed and now the cleaners earn at least the London living wage of £7.45 an hour, enough to support themselves and their families at last.

What many people don’t know is that the Living Wage Unit was set up under Ken Livingstone’s administration thanks to the Green Party members of the London Assembly, Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson.

They held a casting vote over the Mayor’s budget for four years and used it to get a fair deal for all London government’s employees, and create the Living Wage Unit to calculate the amount needed to get by in the capital.

While they don’t have the same influence over the new Mayor, Greens in London are continuing to support the efforts of groups such as London Citizens, the Fair Pay Network and The East London Communities Organisation fighting for fair pay for cleaners, shop staff and catering and hotel workers across London.

In Oxford, Greens have also succeeded in passing a motion through the city council, bringing in a living wage for council workers there. But when the Greens brought the same motion to Oxfordshire County Council this June, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives shamefully voted it down.

In Lewisham, the six strong Green Group is proposing a living wage for all council employees, and are proposing extending this to all council contractors as well. And our Deputy Leader, Adrian Ramsay (who is also taking part in Blog Action Day) defeated Conservative opposition to commit Norwich City Council to the principle of the Living Wage.

Over the next months, Greens all over the country will be following the example of Oxford, London, Lewisham and Norwich Green Parties. They will be campaigning hard so that millions more of the lowest paid workers in Britain get a decent wage.

The Greens have spent a long time being right about things like this, but pushed to the political margins. It makes me so proud that as we win more and more elections, we refuse to rest on those laurels but use that influence to make real changes in the lives of ordinary people who have also been marginalised by the establishment parties.

So next time you're tempted to think of the Greens as a single-issue party, ask a Fire Brigade cleaner.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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I’m in the kitchen with my children, finally learning how to sharpen a knife

For some reason, they have often given me sharp things as presents.

The children have been with me quite a bit lately: they are all going to be, by the time you read this, on their travels, and the Hovel is a useful staging-post for the start of their journeys. Staying here means an extra hour in bed when you have to take a coach from Victoria, or a plane from Stansted or, worse, Luton.

Their company never fails to delight, which is not how I imagined things would turn out. I was a surly clock-watcher at my own parents’ home, counting the days until I could cast off the oppressive yoke of having my meals cooked for me and my laundry done. That was how it was back then. Nowadays, parents try to close the gap between themselves and their children or, even if they don’t try, the gap seems to be closing anyway.

I suppose not being in situ for ten years, on the ground doing the daily heavy lifting, helps. I am not the monstrous, Freudian oppressor-figure: I am the messy layabout with a certain weird kind of authority but not one who assumes the moral high ground. But here they are, or were, and as they get older they get increasingly interesting, more pleasing to be with. And the interesting thing is that they now have skills that I can learn. The traffic of instruction is not one-way.

My daughter worked, for a while, in the kitchen of a restaurant in Berlin. She already knew how to cook, and how to get along with people, but there she also learned how to sharpen knives. I thought I could, but I can’t, not at all.

When you see a father – invariably a father – zinging a honing steel along the blade of a knife prior to carving the Sunday roast, he is not doing anything useful apart from establishing a sense of theatre, which is of debatable utility anyway. He might think he’s a cross between Zorro and Anthony Bourdain, the rather cool New York chef – there’s always a certain flourish in the wrist action – but the trained chef will raise an eyebrow.

For some reason my children have often given me sharp things as presents. For my first Christmas in the Hovel they gave me a Swiss Army Knife, which I still use, especially the corkscrew; one birthday they gave me a pizza-cutter in the shape of the original Starship Enterprise – which I still use. And last birthday, the boys clubbed together to get me a proper kitchen knife.

I had hitherto resisted the notion of getting one, despite the fact that I like cooking and also know how important a good knife is. Here is Bourdain himself, writing in his Les Halles Cookbook (the only one I ever use these days): “Your knife, more than any other piece of equipment in the kitchen, is an extension of the self, an expression of your skills, ability, experience, dreams and desires.”

I suppose this was why I put up with rubbish knives for so long: my dreams and desires were second-rate. I was cooking on an electric hob, mostly for myself; besides, I wasn’t going to be here forever. What the hell was I going to do with a decent knife? Also, I have a healthy respect for sharpness, and whenever I cut meat up with a good blade, I imagine that blade cutting into my own weak flesh, and see vividly, the wound it makes.

But a good knife needs to be looked after, and my daughter, who was given a Japanese chef’s knife as a parting gift from her fellow kitchen workers, learned how to use a water stone, and last weekend taught me.

It is fascinating, and soothing, sharpening a knife. You have to gauge the correct angle at which to place the blade against the stone. You have to feel, with the pads of your fingers, the sharpness of the knife itself, and the burr that results on one side of it after a few dozen passes over the stone. One is aware that sharpening is about shaving steel, almost by molecules at a time, a process that has no theoretical end, except when, one day, the knife itself is sharpened to invisibility.

I am reminded of the fabled measure of eternity: the bird who sharpens his beak against the rock of a mile-high mountain once every hundred years. When the mountain is worn down, a mere day of eternity will have passed.

Meanwhile, the daughter passes the knife across the stone, dips her fingers in a bowl of water, sprinkles it over the stone, and repeats the passing. The father sits there, absorbed in her skill, wondering at this inversion of the traditional learning process. “Here,” she says, handing over knife and stone. “You have a go.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder