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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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