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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage