The public support a universal living wage - even if it costs jobs

Sixty per cent of workers agree that the minimum wage should be raised to the level of the living wage.

It's now hard to find a politician who doesn't think the living wage is a good idea. Those companies who pay their employees at least £7.45 an hour (or £8.55 in London), report increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, improved morale and higher staff retention rates. And the government benefits too. The IFS estimates that for every £1 spent on raising pay to living wage level, around 50p returns to the Treasury in the form of reduced welfare payments and higher tax revenues. 

It's statistics like this that prompt some to ask why we shouldn't simply raise the minimum wage (currently £6.19 an hour) to the level of its younger brother. It's an option that all party leaders, including Ed Miliband, have so far rejected but what do the voters think? Labour List has just published a new Survation poll (carried out as part of the Unions21 Fair Work Commission) of 1,004 employed people showing that 60 per cent support a compulsory living wage - even if it costs jobs. Asked whether the government should "increase the minimum wage to ensure everyone earns enough to meet reasonable living costs, even if this results in job losses", 71 per cent of Labour voters, 66 per cent of Lib Dems and 44 per cent of Conservatives say yes. There is, as Mark Ferguson notes, majority support for the move across all regions of the UK and all classes. 

The key qualification, of course, is that only those in employment were polled. Those out of work might be less sympathetic to the idea of a universal living wage. Modelling by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests the policy would reduce labour demand by 160,000 jobs, the equivalent of a 0.5 per cent rise in unemployment. But as Jon Stone has previously argued on The Staggers, the risk of higher unemployment deserves to be weighed against the potential benefits of the move. The Resolution Foundation estimates that a mandatory living wage would save the government £2bn a year in lower benefits and higher tax receipts, money that could be used to fund employment programmes, such as Labour's jobs guarantee. At the same time, it would dramatically improve work incentives and act as a powerful economic stimulus. 

The public, as is often the case, are ahead of the politicians on this debate. At the very least, the arguments above deserve to be heard in Westminster. 

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.