To promote the living wage, we need to reform the tax system

We must end the absurdity of companies being financially penalised for becoming living wage employers.

The living wage is one of the few policies that garners consensus across the political spectrum. Which politician would be crazy enough to speak against the idea of companies paying their low-paid employees enough to live on? Cue Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson giving speeches today to mark the start of Living Wage Week – with David Cameron not letting the fact that he’s in the Middle East prevent him from pitching into the debate.

Yet when it comes to what supporting a living wage actually means, the differences begin to show. The to-ing and fro-ing between the Labour Party and No 10 today highlight the slippery nature of an idea that is – since no politicians are advocating a statutory living wage – in essence about businesses doing the right thing.

Cameron and Johnson – if their contributions today are anything to go by – stand for business voluntarism in its purest sense. Politicians should stand alongside campaigning organisations like London Citizens in imploring businesses to pay a living wage, but there the buck stops. This ignores the fact that early living wage adopters have tended to be City corporations with a very low proportion of low-paid staff – for whom the costs of becoming a living wage employer are relatively low – and values-driven public sector organisations (of which Boris Johnson’s Greater London Authority is not yet one). The idea that a moral campaign led by civil society and government can by itself shift working conditions for millions in the low-paid, low-skill service sector remains a distant prospect.

Ed Miliband recognised this today by floating the idea that the tax system should reward those companies that become living wage employers. This is an idea that merits serious consideration. The idea that we would financially penalise companies for doing the right thing – for using green energy, for investing in R&D, or for supporting local communities, seems ridiculously self-defeating.

Yet when it comes to the living wage, that is exactly what we do. The IFS estimated back in 2010 that the annual cost to the taxpayer of employers paying below the living wage – in terms of tax credits, benefits and foregone tax – is approximately £6bn. Yet we financially penalise companies taking the decision to become living wage employers. An employer would face an extra bill of £570 a year in employer national insurance contributions (NICs) as a result of moving a full-time employee from the minimum to the living wage. This is despite the fact that the cost to the Treasury of employers paying below living wage is around £1,000 per employee. The tax system effectively charges employers to do something that not only is the right thing to do, but which saves the Treasury a substantial amount of money.

A good way to address this anomaly would be to take the disincentive to pay the living wage out of the system – by introducing a new, flat-rate employer national insurance contribution for employees earning below living wage. This would be set at the same level for a full-time employee actually on the living wage, paid pro-rata for part-time employees. The Treasury could recycle the extra revenue this generates through targeted NICs holidays for small businesses taking on new employees.

Of course, the tax bill is only one of a number of factors companies take into account when making decisions about how much to pay their employees. But if the energy invested by business lobby groups into making the case for lower national insurance is anything to go by, it is something that weighs heavily on the minds of employers, particularly in these straitened times.

Politicians are wary of legislating for the living wage, and they are right to be so: the effects of a big increase in the statutory minimum wage for unemployment are untested. But the Tory approach of just asking nicely won’t bring about the change we need. The Labour party is right that we need government to be much more creative in terms of how it encourages employers to pay the living wage. A reform of employer national insurance contributions for low-paid employees would be one pragmatic way of doing so.

Sonia Sodha is a former senior policy adviser to Ed Miliband. She writes in a personal capacity. She tweets @soniasodha.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sonia Sodha is head of policy and strategy at the Social Research Unit and a former senior policy adviser to Ed Miliband. She tweets @soniasodha.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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