Why Labour should introduce a compulsory living wage

Requiring all employers to pay a living wage would stimulate the economy, save the state money and ensure that work always pays.

Ed Miliband has always stopped short of saying Labour would legislate for a living wage, preferring instead to throw his weight behind voluntary adoption of the scheme. But there’s no good reason to be afraid of making it compulsory for all employers to pay a wage large enough to meet the cost of living.

The unemployment costs would be relatively small

Before the National Minimum Wage (NMW) was introduced, it was said that it would significantly increase unemployment as firms would not be able to afford to take on workers. The idea of raising the NMW to a living wage has suffered from similar criticism. But modelling by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) suggests a mandatory living wage of £8.55 in London and £7.45 in the rest of the UK would reduce labour demand by 160,000 jobs. The report’s authors describe this effect as "surprisingly small" - in an active labour force of 32 million this amounts to around a 0.5 per cent increase in unemployment in exchange for millions of workers benefiting from higher wages.

It saves the state a lot of money

Low-wage employment has substantial costs to the public purse, which a living wage would reduce. Housing benefit, which accounts for 11 per cent of the total welfare spend, saw 90 per cent of its new claimants last year in work, and other in-work benefits like Working Tax Credit also effectively subsidise employers who pay a low wage. A living wage would mean the numbers who need these benefits would fall. The Resolution Foundation has calculated that paying all workers a living wage would bring in an extra £3.6bn to the Treasury each year in lower benefits and higher tax receipts. Since many of the workers affected would be in the public sector, the public wage bill would be £1.3bn higher, but there would still be a net increase in revenue of over £2bn to the Treasury, helping to reduce the deficit.

Any unemployment costs could be mitigated

Labour’s current policy to tackle unemployment is to subsidise private sector jobs to provide a compulsory jobs guarantee for all long-term unemployed workers. The stated cost of this policy is £1bn. But with a mandatory living wage bringing in an extra £2bn to the Treasury each year, this programme could be substantially extended – providing a real "employer of last resort" for people who are out of work for shorter periods as well. At the very least the £2bn would more than cover the cost of creating jobs for those projected to be priced out of the labour market, amounting to £12,500 for each of the 160,000 – a rather more extravagant subsidy than the one that would be needed.

It would provide an economic stimulus free to the public purse

One of the problems with the economy is that it is currently demand-constrained. Businesses are not investing, in part because there are fewer people with ready cash to buy their products, which rules out lower yield investment opportunities and dulls the profit motive central to capitalism. One of the reasons for this is depressed wages, which have continued to see substantial real-terms cuts, lagging behind inflation by eight per cent in the last five years. Substantial increases in wages could help lift domestic demand, and a living wage could thus act as a stimulus without a cost to the public purse.

It makes work pay

Political orthodoxy suggests that it’s important to make work pay, or people will opt to live on unemployment benefits. Whether this is true or not, at its core ‘making work pay’ seems a reasonable goal. But making people better off in work than out of work by reducing benefit rates cuts the incomes of the poorest in pursuit of this ideal. By contrast, higher wages incentivise work without harming the unemployed. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit is supposed to address this by reducing withdrawal rates of benefits, so those who take jobs don’t lose all their benefits instantly. But there are reports he has had problems getting as much Treasury money behind the plan as he’d like. A mandatory living wage, on the other hand, actually brings in money to the Exchequer and would present no such financial obstacles.

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

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide