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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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.