Government lays groundwork for slashing minimum wage

The Government has instructed the Low Pay Commission to consider the impact of the minimum wage on “employment and the economy”.

The Telegraph suggests that the government is considering freezing or cutting the minimum wage if it starts to cost jobs or damage the economy. Christopher Hope reports:

The minimum wage for millions of people could have to be capped or frozen in future if it risks damaging jobs or the economy, the Government has said.

It has told the Low Pay Commission, which sets the minimum wage, that it must formally consider its impact on “employment and the economy”, before agreeing future increases.

The change, which will be written into the Commission’s new terms of reference, raises the prospect of the first ever across-the-board freeze or cut in the minimum wage for everyone if the economic uncertainty continues.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fact that the minimum wage has risen below inflation – and thus faced an across-the-board cut in real terms – every year since the recession. The Low Pay Commission is, it seems, perfectly capable of examining the level of the minimum wage and deciding it's too high, and has done that four years in a row.

When you look at the actual history of the minimum wage in the UK since its introduction in 1999, the key thing that stands out is how few negative effects it has had at all. As Tory MP Matthew Hancock told the Resolution Foundation last week:

The standard argument against the minimum wage is that a minimum wage would price people out of jobs. But the academic analysis doesn’t back it up. The analysis of the impact of minimum wages is one of the most studied areas of economics.

There are so many studies that economists now publish studies of studies, bringing all the data together. Two of the most recent, which together analysed 91 studies, found that “the minimum wage has little or no discernible effect on the employment prospects of low-wage workers.”

Many reasons are cited by the study, including increased pay raising the efficiency of the workforce, and the very small impact of minimum wage increases on the total pay bill. After all, work is a team effort. Working out how much of a firm’s revenue is down to which member of the team is an imprecise art at best. Just as with high pay, the question of just rewards is important.

A phrase favoured by right-wing economists is that it is "economics 101 that the minimum wage increases unemployment". Going by the available evidence, it seems like there's a reason economics 101 is followed up by economics 201 and economics 301.

But while the information we have suggests that the Low Pay Commission has handled its task well, that doesn't mean we should ignore the possibility that a minimum wage set too high might damage employment. Indeed, that's clearly something the Low Pay Commission examines, as it explains the real-terms cuts coinciding with the recent spike in unemployment. The Government telling the Commission to "formally consider" employment and growth is just an emphasis on areas formerly implicitly covered.

But the minimum wage would have a strong rationale even if it did slight harm to growth and employment. After all, all expectations were that there would be a slight increase in unemployment after we introduced it in 1999, and although that didn't happen, it wouldn't have been the wrong decision if it did.

You can rationalise a minimum wage which slightly harms employment by asking what the role of the welfare state actually is. If it's to help people of low incomes across the board, then the key thing is to get everyone into work no matter how badly paid, and top their quality of life up to an acceptable level. If, conversely, it's a safety net to help those out of work, then there's not much to be said for the prospect of people in work still needing help. To put it in the Blairite language with which it was promoted, the minimum wage is about making work pay. If work doesn't pay, and is subsequently made unviable by a – still very low – minimum wage, then it's not the biggest hit ever taken.

Similarly, a slight hit to growth caused by the minimum wage can again work out OK, especially if redistributionist policies ensure that the paid from that hit is taken by the rich. Compare it, for instance, to tax. It is widely accepted that there is a deadweight loss to taxation – that is, the act of taxing people reduces their incomes by more than the amount of revenue received. Nonetheless, we do it, because we think it might be worth turning a pound in a rich person's pocket into 90p in the hand of someone poor. And the same is true of the minimum wage – the unambiguous winners of it are working poor people, and if the hit is taken by people richer than them, that might be a decision worth taking. Every policy has trade-offs, and requiring the minimum wage to have absolutely no negative effects is holding it to a standard no other policy could live up to.

The Government's instruction to the Low Pay Commission to do something they are already doing will hopefully remain just that. But if it becomes the start of a whispering campaign to suggest that minimum wage laws are making us all worse off, remember that they aren't; and that even if they were making some of us worse off, it might well be worth it given those whose lives they improve.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt