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 shadow minister for women and equalities.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle