How much would Miliband's living wage plans actually change?

"Naming and shaming" employers who don't pay the living wage is likely to have disappointing results.

Labour says it would "name and shame" employers that don’t pay all their workers a living wage – the income a person needs to be able to afford a basic standard of living. But how shaming would inclusion on Miliband's list of offenders be? Employers on it wouldn’t exactly stand out: KPMG calculates that one in five UK workers are not paid a living wage, which stands at £7.45, or £8.55 in London.

That makes for safety in numbers, and with low wages heavily concentrated in certain sectors – 70 per cent of cleaners, waiters, and kitchen staff are paid less than the recommended rate – the competitors of affected companies would be even less likely to pay the wage, keeping the pressure to change low.

Miliband’s pledge recalls the strategy of anti-tax-avoidance protest group UK Uncut, which drew attention to high profile companies that avoided large sums of tax, in the hope of shaming them into paying more. The campaign succeeded in raising the issue up the political agenda – but corporate tax avoidance is still rife, and there have so far been no major public reversals by their targets: at the height of the protests last year, companies like Vodafone reported record profits, whilst spokespeople simply repeat that they are following the law.

One aim of UK Uncut was to urge politicians to act on the issue and change the law, but as a politician himself, Miliband’s approach to low pay seems somewhat confused. Low paid workers may well also ask why Labour needs to be in government to do what a small campaign group did with a Twitter account and a lot of time on their hands.

UK Uncut also had the advantage of focusing its fire on specific, high profile offenders. But if a Labour government were to target specific companies to get high-profile results, they'd be likely to fall foul of EU state aid regulations: governments are strictly forbidden from picking on certain companies, or offering an "advantage in any form whatsoever conferred on a selective basis to undertakings by national public authorities".

The "name and shame" approach could even be embarrassing for Labour, which doesn’t have a spotless record on the living wage itself. Relying on negative media coverage and civil society to do the job could end up with the party turning its fire on itself. The party’s longest serving living Prime Minister only recently signed up to paying his staff the bare minimum wage, and Tony Blair, among others, would be one of those shamed for not paying the living rate if the proposals were comprehensively implemented.

If Labour is serious about workers earning a living wage then it will probably find the results of its flirtation with business voluntarism disappointing. The actions of companies are ultimately guided by the profit motive and shareholder value, and recent history suggests that activism can rarely, by itself, create corporate social responsibility out of thin air.

Ed Miliband is campaigning for companies to pay the living wage, currently £7.45 an hour. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.