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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.