Minimum wage: The only way is up?

On Britain’s low paid workers.

Tomorrow sees a 15 pence per hour pay rise for Britain's lowest paid workers. Of course, every penny helps, but don't expect to hear much gratitude. With RPI inflation running at 5.2 per cent, this year's VAT increase still being absorbed, tax credits being stripped back and any number of other pressures on the cost of living, this year's increase won't allow Britain's low paid to stand still, never mind move forward. The best that can be said is they will be getting poorer (given inflation) at about the same rate as those on average pay.

But before we rush to judgement on this apparently stingy increase, bear in mind that the Low Pay Commission (LPC), which oversees increases in the minimum wage, had a truly tricky job on its hands. Given anaemic growth and rising unemployment it's no surprise that they decided to err on the side of caution -- they couldn't risk making a tough labour market worse.

Whether or not precisely the right balance was struck this year, now is a good moment to consider the role the minimum wage has played in lifting living standards to date, and what more it might do in the future. Turn back the clock fifteen years and there were of course plenty of doom mongerers predicting the devastating impact on jobs if workers were unlucky enough to be afforded protection through a legal wage floor. Things turned out differently. As an authoritative study of the experience of the minimum wage to date concluded: "there is little or no evidence of any employment effects". Even those groups who were thought to be most vulnerable don't appear to have experienced a negative effect -- indeed the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently found that employment rates are actually higher for those aged 22 (who get the full minimum wage) compared to those who are 21 (who get a lower rate), as the higher wage appears to have drawn more of them into work.

Nor can we put these findings down to the fact that the minimum wage has been pegged at rock-bottom levels. If we look at the period from its inception in 1999 up to 2010 it went up by around 65 per cent; massively outstripping CPI inflation (25 per cent) and RPI inflation (37 per cent), as well as out-performing median pay (hence the gap between those on low pay and those in the middle has fallen modestly).

At a time when most forces in our economy have been serving to squeeze the share of income going to the bottom, the minimum wage has pushed back in the other direction.

And there is evidence that the minimum wage may have benefited many people who actually get paid above the legal rate. A pay raise at the bottom can have a knock-on effect on those slightly higher up the earnings ladder, as these workers seek to protect their earnings relative to those below them. The implication is that many modestly paid workers may indirectly (and probably unknowingly) have benefited from the minimum wage.

We also know following a recent study that those firms and sectors most affected by the minimum wage have experienced significant increases in productivity as a result. Businesses don't just meekly absorb higher wages: they seek to change working patterns and investment decisions to enable them to succeed given higher costs (though admittedly larger firms find this easier than smaller ones). The Low Pay Commission was pipped to the post in arriving at this finding by a certain Sidney Webb who had precisely this insight a century ago -- armed with little more than economic intuition and precise prose, rather than today's econometric models.

In a world where few policies have a straightforwardly positive impact -- where even apparently benign measures often have malign side effects -- the minimum wage stands out as something of an exception. Its success is all the more noteworthy given that it embodies many of the attributes that, according to the current zeitgeist, make for Bad Policy. Regulation not de-regulation. National not local. Top-down not bottom up. Overseen by corporatist committee not small platoon. It has all the perfect characteristics to make it the pantomime villain in today's Whitehall.

Yet given its record, all parties feel the need to proclaim support (even if there is some sniping from the Conservative right).

Despite this apparent consensus there are still questions to ask about its future role. Over recent years the level of the minimum wage has fallen backwards relative to that of median earnings. Indeed, as the chart below shows, if we wanted the lowest paid in Britain simply to recover the ground they've lost relative to the "middle" since 2007, we'd need to see a steep climb in minimum pay over the next few years -- and all this in a period when overall wages are not expected to go up by much.

 

Whether or not this is remotely tenable obviously depends in large part on what happens in the wider economy. If we slip into another recession then calls for a rapidly rising minimum wage will be given short shrift. But if that doesn't happen, and the jobs market gradually recovers, this will itself prompt an important question: should the minimum wage really just be about maintaining a wage-floor in the difficult decade ahead, or should it seek to ensure that, at the least, Britain's low paid workers don't fall further behind everyone else? This question is likely to grow in salience.

For in an era of mounting cuts to tax credits for those in work, if the minimum wage doesn't play this wider role, it's not clear what else will.

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

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Labour trying to outdo Ukip on border control is the sure path to defeat

Only Diane Abbott has come out fighting for free movement. 

There is no point trying to deny it. Paul Nuttall’s election as Ukip leader is dangerous for Labour. Yes, Nuttall may not be a credible voice for working-class people – he ran as a Tory councillor in 2002 and has said that “the very existence of the NHS stifles competition”. Yes, he may be leader of a party which has (for now) haemorrhaged donors and supporters. But what Nuttall’s election represents is the coming of age for a form of right-wing populism which is pointed directly at Labour’s base. Along with the likes of Ukip's major donor Arron Banks, Nuttall will open up a second front against Labour – focused on blaming migrants for falling wages and crumbling services.

In the face of this danger, and the burning need to create a narrative of its own about the neglect of the communities it represents, Labour’s main response has been confusion. Barely a week has gone by without a major Labour figure repeating the touchstone myths on which Ukip has built its working class roots. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Emily Thornberry openly backed the idea that migration has dragged down wages. “Do I think that at the moment too many people come into this country? Yes I do”, she said.

Another response has been to look for policies that transcend the debate altogether, while giving a nod to the perceived “concerns” that voters harbour about immigration. When Clive Lewis spoke to the Guardian some weeks ago, he also repeated the idea that free movement “hasn’t worked for many of the people in this country, where they’ve been undercut” and coupled this with compulsory trade union membership for those coming to Britain to work – a closed shop for migrant workers.

It is unsurprising that MPs on the right of the party – many of whom had much to say about the benefits of migration during the EU referendum – have retreated into support for immigration controls. This kind of triangulation and retreat – the opposite of the insurgent leftwing populism that Labour needs to win elections – is the hallmark of Labour’s establishment politics. Those who want to stand and fight on the issue should be concerned that, for now, only Diane Abbott has come out fighting for continued free movement.

At the moment, Labour is chasing the narrative on immigration – and that has to stop. The process that is shifting the debate on migration is Brexit, the British franchise of a global nationalist resurgence that is sweeping the far right to power across the western world. Attempt to negotiate a compromise on migration in the face of that wave, or try to claim it as an “opportunity”, and there is simply no limit to how far Labour will be pushed. What is needed is an ideological counter-attack, which tells a different story about why living standards have deteriorated and offers real solutions.

The reason why wages have stagnated and in recent decades is not immigration. Among the very few studies which find that migration has caused a fall in wages, most conclude that the fall is marginal. The Bank of England’s study, cited by Boris Johnson in the heat of the EU referendum campaign, put the average figure at 0.3 per cent for every ten percentage point rise in migrants in a given sector of work. That rises to 1.8 per cent in some areas.

Median earnings fell by 10.4 per cent between 2007 and 2015, and by 2021 are forecast to be lower in real terms than they were in 2008. For many communities, that fall in wages comes on top of the destruction of industry; the defeat of the trade union movement; the fire sale of Britain’s social housing stock; and years of gruelling Tory austerity. Nuttall’s Ukip will argue that economic and social insecurity are the result of uncontrolled immigration. To give an inch to that claim is to abandon reality.

Labour cannot win against Ukip by playing around with new and innovative border controls – it has to put forward a vision for a radically different kind of society. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is closer than it ever has been to the kind of radical social and economic platform that it will need to regain power - £500bn of investment, building a million new homes a year, raising minimum wage and reinstating proper collective bargaining and trade union rights. What it needs now is clarity – a message about who to blame and what to do, which can cut through the dust kicked up by the Brexit vote.