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
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.