Mark Carney addresses the TUC, who have made the living wage a significant campaign in recent years. (Photo: Getty)
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Budget 2015: The time is ripe for the Living Wage

A growing economy means it's time for the wealth to be shared: time for a living wage.

In 2010, the storm clouds were still circling around the British economy, with unemployment rising, the country on the verge of bankruptcy and grim talk of a stagnation that would last for years, or even decades.

In the period after 2008, many workers and families made great sacrifices, with many eschewing pay rises for several years. Following the financial crash, the Minimum Wage also lost value in real terms, as the Low Pay Commission decided that anything other than small increases were too economically risky.

Thankfully, the British economy has now turned the corner – growth being amongst the highest in Europe. Profitability of business is now at a record high. Profitable big business needs to give some of these profits back to their workers in increased wages and for businesses to rely less on the taxpayer to tackle low pay.            

We should celebrate the above inflation increase to the Minimum Wage and the increase to the rate for apprentices. The economic recovery means that now is the time to tackle low pay generally and to ensure that people don’t become ‘stuck’ in low paid work.

Low pay matters because people who are stuck in low pay often think that the connection between hard work and reward has been broken. Low paid workers are less likely to be able to spend time with their families or in their communities and there’s a link between low-paid work and problems with depression and mental health issues.

It matters to the taxpayer as well. As new research for the Centre for Social Justice has shown, the Universal Credit succeeds in ensuring that work pays. But too much of the bill to ensure that people on low pay are able to reach a reasonable standard of living is being picked up by the state. It’s time for profitable big business to take on its share of the burden.

Take the example of a single person with two children. A 35 hour week on minimum wage would mean that they were earning £211 a week. After benefits under Universal Credit this rises to £454 a week. It’s clear that tax credits are an important way of cushioning low pay, but business should be prepared to play their part too. Otherwise employers who pay their workers well are effectively subsidising those who don’t.

The strong economy means that substantial, above inflation increases in the Minimum Wage can now be achieved. It has also seen a big increase in the number of firms paying the Living Wage – up from the low hundreds in 2010 to over 1,200 today. It’s right that big, profitable companies should move towards the Living Wage and they should be expected to report annually on whether they’re taking steps to achieve this.

Tackling low pay is crucial, as is making sure that people don’t get ‘stuck’ in low pay for a prolonged period of time. Universal Credit provides a proactive way of doing this – Job Centre Plus advisers should work with Universal Credit claimants to develop way for them to increase their skills and increase their hours.

A strong economy is a prerequisite to tackling low pay over the long-term. The strength of the economy now means that big business should be ready to reward their workers for the sacrifices made since the banking crash and take some of the burden off the taxpayer when it comes to tackling low pay.

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

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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