Labour is the only party that can be trusted to strengthen the minimum wage

The Tories and the Lib Dems' past opposition to the minimum wage shows why we should be sceptical of their warms words on low pay.

One of the questions I like to ask when I'm interviewing candidates to work in my office is what they think is Labour's greatest achievement. The answer I most often get is the National Minimum Wage.
 
We are right to be proud of it. When Labour introduced the minimum wage in 1999, it made an immediate difference to workers on the lowest pay. Women in particular benefited. And thousands of decent employers all over the country were pleased too; it tackled exploitative and unscrupulous competitors using low pay to undercut costs.

It's easy to forget, now that all the main political parties claim to support it, just how bold and radical the introduction of the minimum wage was. But when it was introduced by Labour, the Tories were outright opposed. They said that it would cripple business, and would destroy thousands of jobs.
Of course, that simply wasn't the case. Our careful approach when in government, working in partnership with employers and employees, maintaining the right balance between wage growth and the impact on employment, ensured its success.

The Lib Dems, too, are Jonny-come-lately's to the value of the minimum wage. In 2003, Vince Cable said increases in its level set "a dangerous precedent". So why would we believe his warm words about it last week? But perhaps the most convincing proof of the Cameron government's lack of enthusiasm is that the real value of the minimum wage has declined by 5% since 2010.

Labour is the only party with a track record of bold action on low pay, the only party that can be trusted to boost and strengthen the minimum wage. And it's action that is desperately needed. In 38 out of the 39 months that David Cameron's been in Downing Street, average wages have fallen; people are on average £1,500 worse off. Low pay is contributing to the crisis in living standards facing Britain.

So, building on the successful approach we used in government, Ed's commitment today is that Labour will strengthen the minimum wage. Fair pay is central to Ed's vision of a different kind of economy, one in which both workers and business play their part. The only way we're going to build a strong economy is to make sure it works for working people. That means competing on high skill, high wage jobs.

The minimum wage needs to rise faster than it has in recent years so that it catches up to where it was in 2010. There is also evidence that the minimum wage puts very little pressure on employers in sectors that could afford to pay more. Analysis by IPPR and the Resolution Foundation has shown that increasing the minimum wage to the level of the living wage would cost large employers in sectors like finance, construction and computing less than one half of one per cent of their total wage bill. Around one million workers would see their pay rise.

Of course, it's right that we work closely with business to ensure we get the detail right. I'm pleased that Alan Buckle, Deputy Chair of KPMG International, has agreed to lead a review to look at how to strengthen the powers of the Low Pay Commission. We must also have effective enforcement - that is why Labour has committed to increasing the fines for non-payment of the minimum wage and to giving local authorities a role in enforcement alongside HMRC.

We're right to take pride that it was a Labour government that introduced the minimum wage. We are right to be proud of the difference it's made. The next Labour government will strengthen the minimum wage.

I'm proud Ed has promised today that we will take action. It is Labour policies that will tackle the low pay that is driving the cost of living crisis and holding back growth.

 
Kate Green is Labour MP for Stretford and Umston and shadow equalities minister
 
The real-terms value of the minimum wage has declined by 5% since 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kate Green is Labour MP for Stretford and Umston and was shadow minister for women and equalities before resigning in June 2016.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.