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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496