Labour should beat George Osborne at his own game with a living wage employment allowance

Cutting the "jobs tax" was the best move the Chancellor made, but Labour should go further, writes Nick Pecorelli.

In George Osborne’s budget politics triumphed over economics and bravado over honesty. But in amidst the cauldron of denial, downgrades and general gloom there was one interesting policy proposal that small businesses should celebrate and progressives should build on.

George Osborne announced a new employer’s national insurance employment allowance of £2000 for all businesses; a cut in the “jobs tax”. This is a much better approach to supporting small businesses than cuts in corporation tax because so many small businesses are too hand to mouth to make a profit. Moreover, a flat rate allowance helps the smallest businesses most.

Using national insurance to promote employment goals is not new. But what is new is the decoupling of total employers' national insurance payments from individual pay rates, and this opens the door to a very different way of using national insurance to support progressive values.

One of the last Labour government’s defining policies was the implementation of the national minimum wage. Over one and a half million low paid workers received a pay rise and instantly there was a wage floor set in statute below which no one could be legally paid. 

The national minimum wage has been a success not just because Labour made the moral case but because it made an economic one. Higher pay floats workers off benefits, saves taxpayers money and puts cash into the hands of those who are most likely to spend it rather than save it.

But Labour also bound in business by setting up a Low Pay Commission, on which both sides of industry and experts are represented. The Low Pay Commission’s job has been to agree the minimum wage annually at a rate which is affordable and does not damage job creation. 

Today, the minimum wage is set at £6.19 an hour for those aged 21 and over. That’s better than a world where employers could legally pay £2 an hour but certainly not a decent wage.

Hence, the campaign for a living wage of £7.45 an hour (or £8.55 in London), launched by London Citizens over a decade ago. The Living Wage campaign is energised and has had many successes, but these are mainly amongst larger corporations and the public sector.  Larger corporations can typically afford to see paying a living wage as part of their corporate social responsibility agenda. Councils can make the political choice to pay a living wage (and for that matter stipulate that their contractors must also pay it). But for many small businesses, predominantly those in certain sectors, it’s simply tough to do it and make the sums add up, particularly when your competitors aren’t paying it.

Many of these businesses only employ a few people – restaurants, hairdressers, small independent retailers, niche textile operations and so on. So a simple way for Labour to adapt George Osborne’s employment allowance into a policy that not only promotes employment but employment on a decent wage, is to argue that it should become a Living Wage Employment Allowance and only be available to businesses who pay a living wage (a lower youth rate would be needed to encourage employers to take on inexperienced workers). 

This will help fill the policy void between the compulsion of the national minimum wage and the exaltation of the campaign for a living wage.

By giving most help to the smallest businesses it will help create a new wage norm. Once a first, second and third employee are paid a living wage it becomes more challenging for an employer to offer a lower wage to a subsequent employee. Slightly larger businesses will also be more likely to pay a living wage even if the financial inducement of the Living Wage Employment Allowance does not fully cover the cost, partly because their employees would now be able to earn a higher wage elsewhere and partly simply because paying a living wage should become the new norm.

Over time when entrepreneurs are thinking of setting up new ventures the Living Wage Employment Allowance will help focus minds on sectors and business propositions where a living wage is affordable.

As wages for low paid workers increase more people will be floated off benefits and the taxpayer will gain. Some local areas where poverty is rife will get a spending boost, providing not only a direct benefit to economically depressed areas but a further boost to government coffers. A future Labour government could commit to use these proceeds to increase the Living Wage Employment Allowance and create a virtuous circle of more jobs, better wages, and higher tax revenues. A target of £10,000 might be achievable in the next parliament.

Compliance should also be relatively easy to monitor because wage information is automatically gathered through the national insurance system.

Britain cannot afford a low pay economy but neither can it expect small businesses struggling to make ends meet to pay decent wages without some support. A chancellor who has pursued some of the most regressive policies in recent history has unwittingly opened the door to progress. Labour should seize the opportunity George Osborne has presented with both hands and argue for a new approach that will make Britain’s economy both stronger and fairer.

Photograph: Getty Images

Nick Pecorelli is Associate Director of The Campaign Company

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle