How will Labour respond to the Tories' minimum wage plans?

Many in the party would like Miliband to pledge to raise the minimum wage to the level of the living wage, but a large rise in the former is more likely.

The idea of a significant increase in the minimum wage has been floating around Conservative circles for some months. It is one of the policies advocated by the influential Renewal group, led by David Skelton (a frequent NS contributor), which seeks to broaden the party's appeal among working class voters, and enjoys the support of Tory business minister Matthew Hancock, George Osborne's former chief of staff, who made a notable speech on the subject at the Resolution Foundation last year. 

I was told by several sources before the last Conservative conference to expect an announcement by Osborne himself, but for fear of incurring the wrath of the Low Pay Commission (LPC), which is responsible for setting the minimum wage rate, the Chancellor held back. Now, with the Tories desperate to counter Labour's "cost-of-living" offensive, the idea is back on the agenda, with David Cameron reportedly considering a rise of up to £1. 

The case for an increase in the minimum wage is both political and economic. A significant rise in the main rate, which currently stands at £6.31, would help to counter the charge that the Tories are only "for the rich" and would go some way to redressing the party's disastrous decision to oppose its introduction by Labour in 1999. As Skelton told the FT, "It was a mistake when the party opposed the introduction of the minimum wage and we are still paying for it politically. It made us seem like we were on the side of big business and the rich and it is a hard perception to shake off. This would help enormously." 

The economics are similarly attractive. A 50p rise in the minimum wage (viewed as one of the most likely outcomes), which is now worth no more in real-terms than in 2004, would reduce the benefits bill by around £1bn, improve low-earners' spending power (stimulating growth as a result), as well as increasing productivity, staff morale and employee retention. 

How far the Tories will go remains unclear. The FT reports that Osborne is still unwilling to override the recommendations of the LPC (which may recommend another below-inflation increase when it reports next month) and is concerned about the possible impact on employment (despite the absence of evidence that a rise would cost jobs). One source from the No. 10 policy unit tells the paper: "I think David Cameron would like to do it but he is cautious and I think he would defer to the chancellor on it.  Unemployment has been a good news story for the last two years and we don’t want to rock the boat a year out from the election." But after the briefing of the last few days, it will now be surprising if there is no significant change in the rate this year. 

While the Lib Dems are busy accusing the Tories of "nicking" their ideas, after Vince Cable called for an increase at the Lib Dem conference, many in Labour are feeling far more aggrieved. Is the party that introduced the minimum wage and that has championed it since, really about to allow the Tories to steal the initiative on low pay? 

Having emphasised the need to improve living standards, through lower prices and high pay, Ed Miliband and his team have been thinking hard about what the party can offer on wages. Many Labour MPs and activists (and, indeed, most voters) would like Miliband to pledge to raise the minimum wage to the level of the living wage (£7.65 nationwide and £8.80 in London) but with respected forecasters such as NIESR estimating that a stautory living wage would reduce labour demand by 160,000 jobs, the equivalent of a 0.5 per cent rise in unemployment, this is not on the party's agenda. At most, Miliband will pledge to ensure that all public sector contractors and government departments pay the living wage and provide incentives for private sector employers to do so. Alongside this, Labour figures are considering how best to increase the value of the minimum wage, with linking the main rate to inflation one option being closely examined. Policy is likely to be determined when Alan Buckle, the deputy chair of KPMG, concludes his low pay review for the party. 

But for now, at least, the party can take pride in having moved the centre ground to the left. Until recently, it was still to common to hear Tories warn that the minimum wage was destroying jobs; now they are competing with each other to see who can argue for the biggest rise. Moreover, if all the parties are prepared to engage in a sustained contest over who can best increase living standards, that is good news for all voters and for the economy. 

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.