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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.