Guy Opperman: the Conservative case for a living wage

For too many people in our society, a hard day’s work no longer means a fair day’s pay.

As a Conservative MP, I believe that lower taxes stimulate growth and jobs, that smaller government is invariably better government and that governments must “ensure that work always pays” by making sure those in work are better off than those on benefits. I also believe in hard work. Yet, for too many people in our society, a hard day’s work no longer means a fair day’s pay.

Ever since the financial crash of 2008, the topic of “pay” has been dominated by the pay of those at the top. From golden hellos to golden handshakes, the discussion has often ignored those at the bottom. I sit on the advisory board of the High Pay Centre, alongside the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, and the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady. At the High Pay Centre, we have been making the case for corporate responsibility and pay restraint in the boardroom. It is now time for us to make the case for fairer pay at the bottom, too.

Britain is a country in which some workers earn so little that the government has to step in and provide aid. That is the system of tax credits we have; a subsidy by any other name and a £4bn one at that. How and why did we let it become acceptable for a full-time job not to pay enough to live on? The living wage isn’t just a wonkish idea – it’s the political world catching up with many Britons’ reality.

When the national minimum wage was adopted in 1998, many were sceptical. The fear was that it might hit the number of jobs available. There is ample evidence to show this is not the case. For instance, in 2012 the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex studied the minimum wage and “found almost no evidence of significant adverse impacts on employment”. Today, the minimum wage is supported by all three mainstream parties and rightly so. Yet, for many, the minimum wage does not represent a fair wage.

There are some who have the same scepticism about the living wage – that it could penalise business and hold back growth. It may just be the old socialist in me but when did it become a hindrance rather than a duty for a business to look after its employees? The days of William Armstrong and Joseph Rowntree building houses for their workers and ensuring a decent standard of living may belong in a bygone age but surely some of those principles should still apply?

Some businesses already embrace the principle. In the US, the wholesale retail giant Costco has broken the mould: it pays its staff $11.50 an hour (£7.50), compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 (under £5). Costco’s chief executive, Craig Jelinek, made the point succinctly: “We know it’s a lot more profitable in the long term to minimise employee turnover and maximise employee productivity, commitment and loyalty.”

Businesses and organisations that have committed to paying the living wage include everyone from the big corporate beasts such as Deloitte and Barclays to Aquila Way, a housing association in Gateshead, north-east England. I have met with some of these accredited firms and they all talk of improved morale and productivity. One firm increased staff retention in one department by 65 per cent.

If those on the right won’t listen to the arguments of an old left-winger such as me, then, at the very least, they should listen to the HR director of Barclays, Dominic Johnson, who says “it makes sense for business”. The living wage doesn’t just work for business, it makes sense for the government, too. IPPR and the Resolution Foundation have found that even if only those employers that could easily afford to – the so-called “non-low-wage employers” – paid the living wage, the savings to the Treasury each year would be in the hundreds of millions. This would be the result of increased tax receipts, increased National Insurance contributions and savings on benefits such as tax credits.

Yet even enthusiasts have to accept that there remains a lack of detailed analysis of the effects of a living wage on individual sectors. I will be working hard to ensure that the government takes seriously the conclusions of the Living Wage Commission, chaired by John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. It is vital that we monitor the economic effects of the living wage and demonstrate the benefits and the negatives of paying a living wage.

David Cameron was right when he said that here “is an idea whose time has come”. The living wage started off as a belief and became a campaign. It is now time for us in Westminster to return to our constituencies and make the case for our individual businesses to start paying the living wage.

Guy Opperman is the Conservative MP for Hexham

A London bus. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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