Living wage – coming to a city near you

The challenges are real, but the living wage chimes with the public mood.

The last time a letter left on a desk caused such a stir it involved an exchange between two senior politicians about the future of the country’s finances. This time the note was from a group of Whitehall cleaners to Iain Duncan Smith asking him to make good on his commitment to make work pay and make his department, DWP, a living wage employer. The fact that it so caught the public mood says something about how the question of low pay has risen in salience.  

This is in no small part due to the success of the living wage campaign, a grass-roots movement formed just over a decade ago, to push for a decent wage – above the minimum wage - for workers. It has helped shine a light on the rising problem of in-work poverty. In an era when there are many structural forces bearing down on low pay – from shifts in technology and trade to the continued demise of collective bargaining and the real terms falls in the minimum wage - the momentum behind the campaign for a living wage is a rare example of at least some countervailing pressure.

Yet for all the verve and campaigning success it is still the case that only a relatively small number of people are getting paid a higher wage as a result of working for a living wage employer. For example, in London it is estimated that around 650,000 employees are paid less than the London living wage (£8.30 per hour) yet only around 10,000 have gained an accredited living wage since 2005. Look at the national picture, where a total of six million employees are being paid less than a living wage, and the scale of the low pay challenge becomes clear.

None of which is to say that progress has not been made - thousands of low-paid workers will attest to the difference a living wage has made to their lives – just that the living wage faces a difficult set of challenges as it comes of age.

First, there is the need for the living wage to reach out beyond the public sector and the select parts of the private sector (relatively small numbers of high-profile financial and legal firms) where it currently resides into more mainstream employers. So it is timely that a new report  from the Resolution Foundation and IPPR estimates the impact on the wage bill of large firms across different sectors and challenges some prevailing assumptions. In key sectors like banking, construction, food production and communications - where roughly a million people in total work below the living wage – the typical impact of paying a living wage on the wage bill of large employers is pretty modest at around 1% (and that assumes a knock-on effect on wage differentials for those earning above the living wage).

Average firm-level wage bill increase in different sectors

Source: Resolution Foundation

Of course, the precise cost of a living wage will vary from employer to employer but figures of this size should be absorbable.

Second, is the need to make real progress beyond London where the campaign has traditionally been anchored. The US experience shows how campaigns can move quickly from one city to another, as was the case when the living wage movement first succeeded in securing a higher wage floor in Baltimore in the early 1990s and then quickly spread elsewhere. In the UK we’ve seen the emergence of many new city initiatives over the last year or so - Sheffield, York, and Newcastle have all set up Fairness Commissions following on from the experience in Islington - with the aim of promoting fairer pay across local public and private sectors. It remains to be seen what these processes will achieve but so far it appears that a healthy degree of civic competition is proving a useful spur – and the newly expanded base of Labour-led authorities is only likely to generate more interest.

Third, is the need to ensure that being ambitious about the potential of the living wage doesn’t mean being unrealistic about tax credits. Contrary to what many think (though not the main campaign groups) the living wage is nowhere near high enough to ensure a typical household with children can live independently of state support: indeed the level of the living wage has always been premised on full take-up of in-work tax credits. If it didn’t then the London living wage, for example, would rise from £8.30 an hour to an eye-popping £10.40.  

Finally, there is an unresolved conundrum, both for campaigners and sympathetic politicians, as to the role government should play in expanding coverage of the living wage. This is about philosophy as much as policy. Pure voluntarism, which has been the essence of the campaign to date, may well mean relatively slow progress. Too much statism, for instance through calls for legislation – effectively replacing the minimum wage with a living wage – or expensive tax incentives for employers, would, however, contravene the character of the living wage campaign which has been rooted in a civic process to get employers to take responsibility themselves for paying a decent wage on ethical grounds.  The chasm that exists between relying on moral suasion on the one hand, and top down legislation on the other, needs to be better explored.

While these challenges are real, they all arise from rare success. The living wage is an idea that chimes with the times, allied to a label that works, rooted in a progressive argument that doesn’t rely primarily on more state spending. And that puts it in a very small category indeed.

Many working in key sectors like construction are working below the living wage. Photograph: Getty Images

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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