The Greens have set a new target for the minimum wage to reach £10 an hour for everyone by 2020. Photo: Flickr/Images Money
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£10 an hour: the Greens' new target for minimum wage

For the Green party, asking nicely for employers to pay a living wage isn't enough.

More than 100 years ago the well-known radical socialist Winston Churchill said that it was “a serious national evil” that anyone “should receive less than a living wage for their utmost exertions”. Today both David Cameron and Ed Miliband claim to be united in calling for that evil to be eradicated from national life: in 2010 Cameron said it was “an idea whose time has come”. And in 2012 Miliband called it “a really important idea”.

Yet scratch below the rhetoric and you’ll see that the simple idea of ensuring that wages pay people enough to live on is a long way from being realised. In fact, under Cameron’s watch the problem has got worse – the number of people earning less than a living wage has risen by 50 per cent - from 3.4m in 2011 to 5.2m today. The government promised to make work pay; in fact it’s making work pay much less.

The Conservative and Labour approach of small carrots and no sticks – ranging from gentle encouragement to employers to pay their workers more to tax breaks to companies that “do the right thing” – isn’t working. For the first time since records began, the majority of people in poverty are in working families. Two-thirds of adults in these families are in work. Far too many workers – social care being a notable area of great exploitation – aren’t even being paid the legal minimum wage.

Fear and economic insecurity dog the lives of millions of households. They have little hope for improvement in their circumstances, little confidence that they’ll be able to pay the bills, and worry about going under, disappearing into the hungry jaws of payday loans and credit card bills.

What they need is hope; confidence that their lives will get better, less stressed, less fearful.

That’s why the Green Party is pursuing a different approach. Instead of asking nicely, we will make it a legal requirement for all employers to pay their workforce enough for them to live on: we will set a new target for the minimum wage to reach £10 an hour for everyone by 2020. We’d also immediately increase the minimum wage to living wage levels.

Of those 5.2m low paid workers nearly half a million are in the public sector. The cost of paying them all a living wage works out at around £360m – about 0.25 per cent of public spending. Ensuring all of Tesco’s 310,000 employees have enough to put food on the table and pay the bills would cost a fraction of the £2.4bn profit they are forecast to make this year.

Here in the UK we have one of the worst records on low pay in the developed world. We are twice as bad as the best performers: Belgium, Italy, Norway and Finland all have low pay rates less than half of ours. Only the United States has a worse record.

So anyone who is serious about building a fairer society and an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top, really does have to have a credible plan to tackle poverty pay. The public expect it too – nearly eight in ten agree that “people working full-time should be paid enough to maintain a basic but socially acceptable lifestyle”.

Our £10 an hour policy is a part of a package of measures that will be included in our fully costed 2015 manifesto which will also set out our plans for a wealth tax on the top 1 per cent and pay ratios to ensure that the CEO isn’t paid more than 10 times the salary of the office cleaner.

More than a century after Churchill called for it, the Green Party will ensure that the living wage really is an idea whose time has come.

Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green party

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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