Memo to Duncan Smith: low wages are not an argument for cutting benefits

The fact that benefits have risen faster than wages is an argument for higher wages, not lower benefits.

The latest argument deployed by Iain Duncan Smith in favour of the government's plan to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years (below the rate of inflation) is that benefits have risen faster than private sector wages. The Work and Pensions Secretary is highlighting figures showing that the former have increased by an average of 20 per cent over the last five years (in line with inflation), while the latter have increased by 12 per cent. The statistics aren't new but the government's decision to publicise them shows that it fears Labour, which has denounced the policy as a "strivers' tax" (60 per cent of the real-terms cut falls on working families), may be shifting public opinion against the bill. While the polling results are mixed, one recent survey by Ipsos MORI found that 69 per cent believe that benefits should increase in line with inflation or more. (Conversely, a YouGov poll found that 52 per cent believe Osborne was right to increase benefits by 1 per cent, while a ComRes poll put support at 49 per cent.)

Duncan Smith said today: "Working people across the country have been tightening their belts after years of pay restraint while at the same time watching benefits increase. That is not fair. The welfare state under Labour effectively trapped thousands of families into dependency as it made no sense to give up the certainty of a benefit payment in order to go back to work."

In response, Labour has rightly pointed out that over the last ten years, as opposed to five, wages have risen faster than benefits. Jobseeker's allowance, for instance, has increased from £53.95 a week to £71, a rise of 32 per cent, while wages have increased by 36 per cent, from an average of £347 a week to £471. The current trend is a temporary quirk caused by the recession.

But even if we accept Duncan Smith's baseline, his logic is profoundly flawed. The fact that benefits have risen faster than wages is an argument for increasing wages (for instance, by ensuring greater payment of the living wage), not for cutting benefits. Many of those whose wages have failed to keep pace with inflation actually rely on in-work benefits such as tax credits to protect their living standards. The government's decision to cut these benefits in real-terms will further squeeze their disposable income. In the case of those out-of-work, ensuring that benefits rise in line with inflation is essential both as a matter of social justice - cutting support for the poorest means forcing even more families to choose between heating and eating - and of economic policy. Most claimants can't afford to save, so spend whatever they receive and stimulate the economy as a result. If anything, the government should be considering above-inflation increases in benefits to maintain consumer demand.

When Duncan Smith complains that benefits have risen faster than wages, he is really complaining that wages have risen more slowly than inflation (and are expected to continue to do so until at least 2014). But rather than prompting the government to slash benefits, this grim statistic should prompt it to pursue a genuine growth strategy that ensures more people have access to adequately paid employment. That, however, remains a distant hope.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said it was "not fair" that benefits had risen faster than wages. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.