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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.