The high cost of low pay

As the minimum wage rises below inflation yet again, Matthew Pennycook examines the cost of low pay.

On Monday the National Minimum Wage (NMW) for people aged 21 and over will rise to £6.19 an hour from its current rate of £6.08. This represents a third consecutive annual fall in the real terms value of the minimum wage, now back to levels last seen in 2003. Put simply, the impact of the NMW is stalling. And while the Low Pay Commission’s cautious 11-pence-an-hour rise may be entirely justified in the current economic climate, it will provide little comfort for those that rely on a minimum wage to get by.

None of this is to denigrate the crucial role of the minimum wage. Since its introduction in 1999 the NMW has had a dramatic effect in reducing extreme low pay, providing around one million low-paid workers with the protection of a legal pay floor and ensuring that they are less badly paid than their counterparts in countries such as Germany and the United States. What’s more, this positive effect has come with little or no negative impact on either employment or working hours.

But while the minimum wage continues to shelter a significant minority of British workers from extreme low pay, it is not (and never has been) set at levels that would reduce the overall levels of low-paid work in Britain. Consequently, as a new report released today by the Resolution Foundation makes strikingly clear, its existence does not alter the fact that 5 million workers in the UK – 1 in 5 employees – paid at or above the legal minimum nevertheless remain in low-paid work. These 5 million people earn below £7.49 an hour (£13,600 a year gross for full-time work) and below the level of a living wage that would provide for “a minimum acceptable quality of life”. For this low-paid army – disproportionately female, part-time, and concentrated in the private sector – the NMW provides a safeguard from extreme low pay but not an escape route from life on a low wage.

Low-paid work is, of course, a feature of labour markets in all advanced economies. Yet low-paid work in Britain is associated with a number of negative attributes not shared by other countries. These include higher pay penalties for part-time work, a greater risk that women will find themselves in low-paid work, and a higher risk of low-paid work in certain low-skilled occupations such as social care and childcare.

And among advanced economies, the UK stands out as having one of the highest incidences of low-paid work. This was not always the case. After falling sharply in the early 1970s the share of low pay in the British labour market has grown steadily over the past three decades.

The growth of low-paid work in Britain has been, in part, the product of the steady rise in inequality experienced by much of the developed world in the final quarter of the 20th century. But policy decisions taken over the past three decades have also contributed to the rise, by eroding those institutions that have done much in other countries to arrest the forces bearing down on pay at the bottom of the labour market.

So policy choices matter. Our reliance on an extensive pool of low-skilled, low-paid labour is not predetermined. It’s not the unfortunate but necessary pre-requisite to a strong labour market. Other advanced economies with lower shares of low-paid work have not suffered lost employment or diminished competitiveness. Britain’s low-pay, low-productivity economic model is not the only option available to us.

And it is a model that we pay a heavy price for tolerating. Economically, Britain’s low-paid labour market has been central to the costly – as much £4bn a year – reliance of many low to middle income households on tax credits and other in-work transfers to support household incomes. Socially, low-paid work has been a factor in the gradual rise in in-work poverty since the mid-1990s and is linked to a range of negative outcomes including poor health, higher levels of workplace related stress, and diminished life chances.

Combating low pay is not easy. Tipping the balance away from employment strategies that rely on low paid, low productivity, poor quality jobs and towards 'high road' employment strategies is an almost herculean task. So it is not surprising that many policymakers have preferred to correct market inequities through remedial redistribution. Yet few, if any, believe that the growth in tax credit support that occurred over the past decade can be repeated in these fiscally straitened times. In the years ahead wages will have to do far more of the heavy lifting needed to sustain living standards. But for too long we have confused the existence of the minimum wage with a strategy to reduce low pay. They are not the same thing. So while valuing the vital protection the minimum wage provides for those at the very bottom, we urgently need to start doing the hard thinking required to deliver an ambitious policy agenda to tackle Britain’s endemic levels of low pay.

Margaret Dobb, the wife of a Nottinghamshire miner, holds up a placard at a strike in 1972. Photograph: Getty Images/Hutton Archive

Matthew Pennycook is MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, and member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee. He is PPS to John Healey. 

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.