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.

Getty Images
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn vows not to resign. What next for Labour?

The leader's decision to fight the rebels sets the stage for a new leadership contest or a protracted legal battle.  

Throughout Sunday as the shadow cabinet resignations mounted up (reaching 11 by the evening), Jeremy Corbyn's allies insisted that he was unfazed. "He's not wavering," one told me, adding that Corbyn would seek to form a new frontbench. At 21:54pm, the Labour leader released a statement confirming as much. "I regret there have been resignations today from my shadow cabinet," Corbyn said. "But I am not going to betray the trust of those who voted for me - or the millions of supporters across the country who need Labour to represent them."

Corbyn added that "those who want to change Labour's leadership" would "have to stand in a democratic election, in which I will be a candidate". The shadow cabinet, he said, would be reshaped "over the next 24 hours" ("On past experience, 24 hours to pick a shadow cabinet is ambitious," a Labour source quipped in reference to January's marathon reshuffle). 

Any hope that Corbyn would retreat without a fight has been dispelled. Tom Watson will meet him tomorrow morning to "discuss the way forward", a statement regarded as "ominous" by some of the leader's allies. Labour's deputy failed to back Corbyn's leadeership and warned of the need to be "ready to form a government" following an early election. But even if Watson calls on the leader to resign (which insiders say is far from guaranteed), few believe he will do so. 

Corbyn retains the support of his closest allies, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett, and has been backed by shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry and Andy Burnham ("Those who put personal ambition before the party won't be forgiven or forgotten," a senior MP declared of the Manchester mayoral contender). He will look to repopulate the shadow cabinet with supporters from the 2015 intake, such as Clive Lewis, Richard Burgon, Cat Smith and Rebecca Long-Bailey. 

The Parliamentary Labour Party will meet on Monday at 6pm and discuss a motion of no confidence against Corbyn, tabled by veteran MPs Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey. This will likely be followed by a secret ballot on Tuesday between 9am and 5pm. The rebels are confident of winning a majority (though dismiss reports that as many as 80 per cent will oppose Corbyn). But the Labour leader is still unlikely to resign at this juncture. Having entered office with the backing of just 15 MPs (now 14 following the death of Michael Meacher), he is untroubled by losing support that he never truly had. "He's an oddity. Very gentle but very robust," an ally told me. 

At this point, Corbyn's opponents would be forced to launch a direct leadership challenge, most likely in the form of a "stalking horse". John Spellar, a veteran of Labour's 1980s strife, Hodge and Barry Sheerman have been touted for the role. A matter of fierce dispute on Sunday was whether Corbyn would automatically make the ballot if challenged. Labour's lawyers have told the party that he would not, forcing him to win 50 MP/MEP nominations to stand again (a hurdle he would struggle to clear). But Corbyn's allies counter that their own legal advice suggests the reverse. "It could get very messy and end up in the courts," one senior rebel lamented.

Some take the view that natural justice demands Corbyn is included on the ballot, the view expressed by Tony Blair to MPs. In a new leadership contest, Watson and/or Angela Eagle are regarded as the likeliest challengers, though there is still no agreed alternative. Many argue that the party needs a "Michael Howard figure" to achieve party unity and limit the damge at an early election. He or she would then by succeeded by a younger figure (a "Cameron") such as Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis or Lisa Nandy.

But a Labour source told me of the potential contest: "Don't rule out Yvette. The only grown-up candidate and I believe she wants it". He emphasised the need to look beyond the task of "unifying the party" and towards the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Cooper, an experienced economist, was best-qualified to lead at a moment of "national crisis", the source suggested. Watson, he added, wanted "the leadership handed to him on a plate" with backing from grandees across the party. John McTernan, Blair's former political director, said that he would be "very happy" to have the Brownite as leader. Despite Watson's leading role in the coup against Blair in 2006, many from Labour's right believe that he is best placed to defeat Corbyn and unite the party. Some point to Eagle's fourth-place finish in Labour's deputy leadership election as evidence of her limited appeal. 

McDonnell, Corbyn's closest ally, who MPs have long believed retains leadership ambitions, insisted on Sunday that he would "never stand". Most believe that the shadow chancellor, a more abrasive character than Corbyn, would struggle to achieve the requisite 37 MP/MEP nominations. 

The Labour leader's allies remain confident that he would win majority support from members if challenged. Rebels speak of an "unmistakable shift" in opinion since Brexit but concede that this may prove insufficient. They are prepared to mount repeated challenges to Corbyn if necessary in order to "wear him down". But an early general election, which Boris Johnson is expected to trigger if elected Conservative leader, could deny them the chance. 

As the PLP assembles in Committee Room 14 at 6pm, the activist group Momentum will assemble in Parliament Square for a #KeepCorbyn protest. It is a fitting symbol of a party fatally torn between its members and its MPs. Unless the two can somehow be aligned, Labour will remain united in name only. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.