Osborne's minimum wage move is a huge political opportunity for Labour

By conceding that a large rise would not cost jobs or damage the public finances, Osborne has made it harder for the Tories to credibly oppose a more radical offer from Miliband.

Margaret Thatcher memorably described New Labour as her "greatest achievement". In the same spirit, Labour can greet George Osborne's announcement that he favours "above-inflation increases" in the minimum wage as a remarkable act of political flattery. When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown introduced the policy in 1999, the Tories rejected it as a jobs killer; they are now competing with Labour to promise the biggest rise. There is no better example of how Miliband's party has shifted the centre ground to the left. 

But in both its content and its timing (the day before Miliband's long-trailed speech on the economy this morning), Osborne's gambit is uncomfortable for Labour. It is a reminder of the biggest advantage that a government has over the opposition: while the latter can only talk, it can act. But Osborne's move also opens up new political opportunities for Labour. If the Tories want to enter a bidding war with the opposition on living standards, Labour should be confident that it is one it can win.

Having shifted from denying the living standards crisis to seeking solutions to it (while attempting to blame the last government), it will become harder for the Tories to fend off reminders of how much ground has been lost since 2010 (with the average family, as Labour never lets us forget, £1,600 a year worse off). After the biggest fall in real wages under any government in recorded history and the retoxification of the Conservative brand through the abolition of the 50p tax rate , the danger for the Tories is that a rise in the minimum wage just looks like crumbs from the table. While the Conservatives enjoy a convincing poll lead on the economy, they have long trailed Labour as the party that would do most to improve family incomes. Osborne's announcement might have left the Tories in a better position than before, but they will still struggle to win an election defined by living standards. A tactical victory could become a strategic defeat. 

By conceding that a rise in the minimum wage (which has fallen back to its 2004 level) would not cost jobs and would have a neutral effect on the public finances (with the anticipated fall in corporate tax receipts offset by higher income tax receipts and lower benefits), Osborne has also made it harder for the Tories to oppose a more radical offer from Labour. Many on the left would like Miliband to respond by pledging to introduce a universal living wage, which would see the minimum wage rise from £6.31 to £7.65 in the UK and £8.80 in London. But with respected forecasters such as NIESR estimating that such a move would reduce labour demand by 160,000 jobs, the equivalent of a 0.5% rise in unemployment, this remains unlikely (although a poll last year found that 60% support a universal living wage even if it costs jobs).

It's worth remembering, however, that Labour has already gone further than any of the other main parties by suggesting that it should become compulsory for all public sector contractors and government departments to pay the living wage and by promising tax incentives for private sector employers to do so. When Miliband announced his plan last November, the Tories responded by claiming, with no accompanying evidence, that the policy was "unworkable" and would have "a substantial extra cost to the Exchequer". But after Osborne's embrace of higher wages, such stock lines will be less convincing than ever. If Labour outlines a plan that is both credible and radical, and that the Tories, for ideological reasons, are unable to support, the Chancellor may well regret playing on Miliband's pitch. 

George Osborne delivering his speech on EU reform in London on Wednesday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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