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. 

Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left