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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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”