Labour members present the party's "cost-of-living contract" during a campaign rally on May 21, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour should pledge to make the government a living wage employer

Even at a time of austerity, it is a small price for a big gain. 

The government claims to be a proponent of the living wage. David Cameron says he supported it at the last election and believes it is an idea "whose time has come". Earlier this year he told the World Economic Forum in Davos that "where companies can pay the living wage, they should". Yet for all the warm words, government departments continue to drag their feet over becoming accredited living wage employers.

Rather than leading the way, ministers still insist that a living wage is a cost we perhaps can’t afford. As Lord Deighton, the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, told Parliament in 2013: "requiring employers to pay a living wage could be burdensome to business and damage the employment prospects of low-paid workers". When confronted with the argument that it may be a price worth paying, Downing Street retorts that, anyway, living wage clauses in public procurement breach EU law (a view strong disputed by the European Commission, as well as by Boris Johnson).

If the GLA and a long list of local authorities, universities and charities can pay the living wage, why not Whitehall? Indeed, our study on "setting a fair pay standard: the government as a living wage employer" (here) shows that the cost of paying all low-paid Whitehall workers the living wage would be only £18m – equivalent to 0.002 per cent of total public spending. This would include all in-house employees as well as cleaners, security, catering staff etc who are contracted in. The cost would still be only around £23m even if contractors didn’t absorb any of the costs involved in taking pay rates up to the London living wage level (£8.80).  

Alan Buckle’s recently published report on low pay for the Labour Party recommends that central government departments should become accredited living wage employers and use the power of procurement to encourage organisations bidding for contracts to pay their staff a living wage. This would ensure that all sub-contractors pay the living wage to any staff working on government contracts. Our analysis suggests that this would cover nearly 200,000 people, and approximately 30,000 people would see their pay increase as a result. Many of those low-paid workers who would benefit are currently working for the DWP, which is committed on paper at least to paying the living wage.

There’s a lot of complex number crunching involved in evaluating the cost to government of paying the living wage. Some workers are paid close to the living wage which means the uplift costs are low, others are on the National Minimum Wage and could see their wages rising significantly; there are issues around how much different contractors in different services can afford to contribute, and how phasing might operate; how best to factor in know-on employment effects and productivity gains; and what impact will pay rises at the bottom have on wage differentials? All are important considerations, but not impossible for government to work out. What is most striking is that the overall costs to the taxpayer are low because government gets a dividend back from tax receipts and reduced benefit payments. According to our analysis, the tax and benefit savings of moving 30,000 workers onto the living wage would be some £20m. That’s roughly half the total cost of becoming a living wage employer.

Ed Miliband has flirted with several ideas over how to support the living wage, including council-backed living wage zones and tax breaks to private firms. Each have their merits and demerits. But surely it is best to start with the public sector. Government, after all, is a major employer of low-paid workers and has huge buying power. Ministers can set the pace on the living wage and force and cajole the business community to follow.

In Scotland, Holyrood recently voted down an amendment to the Procurement Reform Bill by Labour to introduce a "Scottish Living Wage duty" - which would make it compulsory for companies who wanted to win work from the public sector to pay the living wage. This was something of an embarrassment for the SNP, which boasts that the Scottish government is an accredited living wage employer.

Labour should be bolder on the living wage than Salmond or Cameron and give a clear and unequivocal commitment over the term of a parliament to making not just Whitehall, but all public bodies living wage employers. The opportunity is there to outflank the Tories, whose credibility on tackling low pay and endorsement of the living wage needs to be challenged. There is a cost and the big contractors will fight against paying their share, but as our report shows, even at a time of fiscal austerity, it is a small price for a big gain. 

Paul Hackett is the director of The Smith Institute.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser