George Osborne looks on as David Cameron delivers a speech to business leaders in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne falls far short of £7 minimum wage target

The proposed figure of £6.70 fails to meet the Chancellor's aim of restoring the minimum wage to its pre-recession value. 

In a characteristically calculated intervention last year, George Osborne sought to compensate for the Tories' past opposition to the minimum wage by declaring that he hoped the main rate would rise to £7 by 2015-16. "If, for example, the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation it would be £7 by 2015-16, £6.31 at the moment, so that is an increase," he said, with an eye to his party's blue collar wing. "I think we can see an above inflation increase in the minimum wage and do it in a way that actually supports our economy precisely because the economy is recovering and many, many jobs are being created." The Treasury published an accompanying analysis modelling the impact of an increase to £7, lending further weight to the figure (which at the time would have restored the minimum wage to its pre-recession value). 

But it is now clear that Osborne was raising false hopes. The Low Pay Commission, the body that advises the government on the minimum wage, has today published its recommendations for 2015-16 - and they do not include an increase to £7. Instead, the LPC has called for a smaller rise to £6.70 (up from £6.50). The government is not obliged to accept its proposals but Vince Cable, who is formally responsible for this area as Business Secretary, has signalled that ministers will almost certainly not oppose the figure. He said: "I will now study these recommendations and consult my Cabinet colleagues with a view to announcing the final rates in the next few weeks. The Low Pay Commission strike a delicate balance between what is fair for workers and what is affordable for employers, without costing jobs. It does so impartially and without political interference. No government has ever rejected the main rates since it was established fifteen years ago. It is important that it is able to continue to do its work ten weeks before a general election."

Cable is known to have been angered when Osborne floated the figure of £7, believing that the LPC would never approve such a large rise. Indeed, Osborne pre-emptively retreated when the government failed to propose this rate in its final submission to the body. The Chancellor can point out that he maintained at the time that 'the exact figure has to be set by the Low Pay Commission'. But that does not alter the fact that he sought (and won) headlines on his support for a £7 rate. Through this careless act, he has handed Labour political ammunition with which to attack him and ensured that a 20p rise (3 per cent above inflation) will now disappoint expectations. 

Although inflation has fallen significantly, a rate of £6.77 would still fail to restore the minimum wage to its peak value. As the Resolution Foundation noted: "The minimum wage is set to rise by 3 per cent in October 2015, roughly the same percentage by which it rose in October 2014. Last year, the Low Pay Commission described its decision to recommend a 3 per cent increase last year – rising from £6.31 to £6.50 – as reflecting “a new phase” for the minimum wage, following a period in which it had suffered repeated falls relative to inflation. But that lost ground has yet to be fully made up. The Resolution Foundation estimates that an increase of 4.2 per cent to £6.77 would have been necessary to take the minimum wage back to its highest ever value in real-terms, which it held in 2008-09."

To be on track to meet Labour's promise of an £8 minimum wage by the end of the next parliament, the rate would need to rise to £6.78. That means the opposition faces some tough questions of its own: would it have become the first government to overrule the LPC? 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder