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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496