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.

Photo: Getty
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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.