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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

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