Pay matters for normal employees, not CEOs

Good on Barclays and Citigroup, but we need to focus on the pay of all employees, not just those at

Stories about shareholders challenging the size of CEO pay deals have been prominent in this week's business pages. Barclays have hurriedly amended the terms of Bob Diamond's bonus in the hope of avoiding the sort of embarrassment that Citigroup suffered when a majority of their investors rejected Vikram Pandit's remuneration package. 

In recent years, investors have been widely criticised for failing to address excessive executive pay, and while their current spate of activity is welcome there is strong evidence that they alone are incapable of systematically addressing the problem. Also, while investors (and companies, commentators and policy-makers) are now having serious conversations about executive pay, they are neglecting other problems around pay in the private sector – problems which have serious impacts on the company performance as well as on the wider economy and society. 

Articles about the pay of company CEOs are now common in, but there are far fewer stories about the pay of the wider workforce. The disproportionate focus on a tiny minority of employees is not confined to the media. Companies' annual reports are obliged to talk about pay at the top, but there is no such requirement with regard to pay at the bottom or middle. (Vince Cable recently rejected the idea of obliging companies to report on the ratio between CEO pay and that of a typical employee). This being the case, it is hardly surprising that investors engage very seldom with companies about wider workforce pay.

Companies, investors, commentators and policymakers frequently talk about the (probably incorrect) assumption that pay at the top must motivate executives by linking big rewards to company performance. There is far less talk about the correlation between narrow pay dispersion and improved company performance, or the detrimental effect of excessively low pay on the productivity, attendance, retention and mental health of low and middle ranking employees. Ignoring the wider workforce may suppress the performance of the wider company, but too often the pay of anyone outside the higher echelons is seen as a cost rather than an investment.

But investors (and policymakers) should also consider how workforce pay affects the wider economy. The CBI recently claimed that allowing minimum wage to fall behind inflation comes as "a relief" to "many hard-pressed firms", but forgets that many firms are hard-pressed because low-paid workers have little money to spend in the local economy. Excessively low pay also externalises huge costs to the taxpayer, either supplementing wages through benefits (about £6bn a year, according to the IFS) or meeting the social costs associated with in-work poverty.

Some investors have realised that companies have employees beyond the boardroom. Traditionally these have been ethical investors, whose actions may have been motivated more by ethics than investment, but some more mainstream investors (such as Hermes & NAPF) and commentators (such as the share centre) are now beginning to talk about the need to consider top pay in relation to workforce pay.

Beyond a few pioneers, shareholder interest in pay "beyond the boardroom" is pitifully limited. Hopefully investors themselves will take more of an interest in the business case for whole-workforce pay policies, but if their engagement with the issue of excessive executive pay is any thing to go on, that will take a very long time. We need both the media and policymakers to take a lead, by ensuring that the conversations they have with business leaders are not disproportionately about those business leaders.

Our businesses, economy and families need to move away from model that often appears to regard top pay is a matter of motivation and everyone else's pay as a matter of cost. If we do not move away from such a model, the economy will remain unnecessarily sluggish and brutal.

Cutting Bob Diamond's salary may bring the 1 per cent down, but does that help the 99 per cent? Photograph: Getty Images

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.