Planning for a pay rise – could 'forward guidance' work for Britain’s low paid workers?

The Low Pay Commission should consider setting out how the minimum wage would increase over time if the recovery is sustained.

How will the low paid fare should the economy move into a period of steady growth? This question is already creating interest across all three parties and looks set to become ever more central to the 2015 election - especially if living standards continue to decline at the same time as growth picks up.

So we can expect there to be more interest in the nuts and bolts of how the minimum wage is set and whether it is likely to rise much over the medium term. Given that the wage floor has already fallen back below the level it was at in 2004, there are some who would favour an immediate hike, perhaps up to the level of the Living Wage, regardless of the fragility of the labour market. Many others worry about the impact of a higher minimum wage on unemployment (even if it is falling a bit) and future job growth. Faced with these competing pressures, policy-makers remain locked-in to the status quo in which the Low Pay Commission (LPC) takes an evidence-based, incremental, and typically cautious look at the level of the wage floor every 12 months.

One possible route through this bind would be to set out how the minimum wage would increase over time if, and only if, the recovery is sustained. If this sort of conditional approach towards policy-making sounds familiar it’s probably because it echoes the much hyped ‘forward guidance’ for monetary policy which has been introduced by Mark Carney at the Bank of England.

In relation to low pay, forward guidance could mean the LPC setting out the path of future increases in the minimum wage over a number of years so long as the recovery is maintained and unemployment falls. If, however, the economy weakens the LPC would revert to setting the minimum wage a year at a time. This approach would mean a shift from the established pattern of annual uplifts but it wouldn’t be wholly exceptional (the LPC has in the past set out its intention to increase the minimum wage above average earnings over a number of years).

What might be the upside of this sort of approach? Well, it could give the lowest paid workers some much needed confidence that they won’t be locked out of any recovery. It would also give employers far greater certainty over the size of the wage pressures they would need to absorb over the medium term. And, politically, it would be used as a way of demonstrating that the low paid will share in growth whilst also providing an escape route should the economy flat-line again.

Easy, then? No – this would be tricky to get right.

There would be wage-disappointment, or more likely wage-rage, if the economy under-performs and the promised increases in the wage floor fail to materialise. A broken promise (as it would be seen) of a pay-rise that fails to show up may well be worse than receiving no such promise in the first place. Employer groups would doubtless blanch at what will inevitably look like chunky increases over the medium term. And, as Mr Carney’s critics have pointed out in relation to monetary policy, there is no such thing as a perfect proxy measure which can reliably be used as a good guide as to whether or not the recovery is robust.

More specifically, if the LPC set out cash figures for the future level of the minimum wage over a number of years then this would effectively mean that the lowest paid workers in the land would be bearing the risk of inflation rising faster than forecast – hence the future increases might need to be set out as rises relative to inflation (which isn’t so easy to communicate). And, if it looked too much like the government was leaning on the Low Pay Commission, seeking to muscle it into increases that it didn’t want to make, then some members may walk away altogether, which could destabilise an institution that has served us well.

Yet for all these challenges, this and other ideas on how best to tackle low pay need to be very carefully looked at. Objections will be raised against any proposal that leads to an increase in the wage floor, many of them coming from the very same people who opposed its introduction in the first place. Fifteen years on, it’s time to consider where next for the minimum wage and to interrogate these and other ideas that could help make it relevant to the decade ahead (as a Resolution Foundation project is doing).

Despite the rhetoric coming from all sides, there is a real risk that interest in improving the plight of the low paid fails to translate into workable policy ideas that will improve the wages of many of those at the sharp end. As things stand, any recovery could all too easily pass them by. Maybe it’s time to plan for a pay-rise. 

Council workers from the Unison union picket outside Manchester Town Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.