Miliband offers answers on living standards, but the Tories just want to change the subject

On the politically defining issue of low pay, the Labour leader has the pitch all to himself.

At last week's PMQs, David Cameron branded Ed Miliband a "one trick pony", suggesting that the Labour leader had nothing to offer beyond a pledge to freeze energy prices (although as Cameron tacitly acknowledged, that "trick" is a potent one). But that's not a line he'll be able to repeat this week. In the next stage of Labour's cost of living offensive, Miliband has turned his attention from rising prices to falling wages. To coincide with Living Wage Week, he will make a speech on the subject tomorrow (as The Staggers revealed last week), providing further details of his plan to offer one-year tax rebates of up to £1,000 per worker to firms that pay employees the higher rate.

The cost of the policy will be met through the increased tax revenues and lower benefit payments that result from companies paying the living wage. For every £1 that employers pay to raise salaries to living wage-level, the Treasury saves 49p. The chunk of this accounted for by higher tax revenues (32p) will be paid back to firms that sign up to Labour's Make Work Pay contracts (a deft appropriation of one of the Tories' favourite slogans), while the Exchequer banks the remainder (another chance for Labour to demonstrate its commitment to fiscal responsibility). 

All three party leaders have praised the living wage (David Cameron described it as "an idea whose time has come" in a speech to Citizens UK in May 2010), but Miliband is the first to make a concrete offer. In response, the Tories have dismissed the plan as one that would require higher borrowing or tax rises, based on a line used by Ed Balls (not a source they're usually keen to cite) during the Labour leadership election. Balls said of Miliband's living wage proposal in 2010: "It seems to me that there would be a substantial extra cost either to the exchequer or to business".

In reference to these comments, Grant Shapps declared: "Even Labour’s own Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls says Ed Miliband’s latest unworkable policy would have a substantial extra cost to the Exchequer. Labour got us into a mess with too much borrowing and too much debt. And now they're calling for yet more borrowing and more debt.

"That would mean higher taxes and higher mortgage rates for hardworking people, hitting their living standards. It would make working Britain worse off, not better off – it’s the same old Labour."

But even were that the case (and it's important to note that Miliband's original plan, based on corporation tax breaks, differed from Labour's), it's not a line of attack that will do much to aid the Tories. Few voters, after all, are going to disagree with the idea of higher wages (a poll earlier this year found that 60% support a universal living wage even if it costs jobs). To the Tories' rhetorical assault, their response will be, but what would you do? 

Before the Conservatives' conference last month, there were rumours that they would promise a significant increase in the minimum wage as a means of shedding their image as "the party of the rich", but no announcement, or even a hint of future action, followed. After Labour's success in shifting the debate towards living standards, the party still gives every impression of wanting to change the subject. Cameron and other Tories regularly berate Miliband and Balls for "not wanting to talk about the economy", boasting that the UK is now forecast to grow faster than any other major western nation. But they would do well to remember that to most voters, living standards are the economy. Rising GDP and falling government borrowing mean little to them if they do not no share in the gains. The Tories remain confident that higher growth will translate into higher wages and that Labour's warnings of a "cost of living crisis" will soon appear as misplaced as past warnings of a triple-dip recession and unemployment of three million.

But rather than merely relying on the economy to deliver the goods (as it may fail to do in an era when growth has become decoupled from living standards), the Tories need to demonstrate that they have their own ideas to raise voters' incomes. Right now, on the defining issue of low pay, Miliband has the pitch all to himself. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.