Where next for the living wage?

Progress on low pay is imperative.

Tomorrow marks the start of the first Living Wage week. It is tangible proof that, 11 years after a small broad-based East London community alliance revived an idea first forged in the industrial heartlands of 1870s Britain, momentum for increased living wage coverage continues to gather pace.

And with good reason: at a time when powerful forces are bearing down on wages at the bottom end of the labour market, living wage campaigns have delivered tangible gains for thousands of low-paid workers. More widely, living wage initiatives have served as a powerful rallying cry against endemic levels of low-paid work, highlighting the power of social norms in challenging a low-pay, low-productivity economic model that is anything but pre-determined. 
 
Yet for all the success of the living wage campaign relatively few workers have secured a higher wage as a result of a living wage initiative. For example, there are an estimated 651,953 workers in London earning less than the London Living Wage, yet only around 10,341 London workers won a living wage in the six years between 2005 and 2011. This is not a cry of despair, simply a call for realism about the role that living wage initiatives can play in tackling our reliance on an extensive pool of low-paid labour and for targeting efforts where they will be most effective.  
 
Of course, the latter would be far easier if there was greater transparency around low-paid work. There is therefore a powerful case for amending the UK Corporate Governance Code to require listed companies to report on how many of their employees receive less then a living wage – as called for in the final report of the Resolution Foundation’s Commission on Living Standards. At a stroke such a move would begin to alter our tolerance of endemic levels of low pay, laying the ground for further gains. 
 
And we know that further progress is possible. Our estimates suggest that for large private sector companies in key sectors like banking, construction, food production and communications – where roughly a million people in total work below living wage rates – the costs of paying a living wage for all directly-employed staff are affordable at around 1 per cent of the firm’s wage bills. 
 
Of course, different companies will be better able to absorb these costs than others and the introduction of a living wage pay floor will be more challenging for companies in the major low-wage retail sectors (increases in wage bills of between 4.7 and 6.2 percentage points) but progress is still possible.
 
It is also imperative given the growing awareness that the public purse can no longer sustain the high cost of the UK’s reliance on 5 million workers – 1 in 5 employees – who earn above the legal minimum but below a living wage. It is not just low-paid workers and their families that bear the cost of low-paid work on this scale in strained budgets and diminished life chances. Taxpayers also pay to the tune of around £4 billion a year in in-work support for low earners. 
 
With few, if any, believing that the growth in tax credit support that occurred over the past decade can be repeated in these fiscally straitened times there is an urgent need to start developing an ambitious policy agenda to tackle low pay at source. For any policymaker serious about doing so living wages are an integral, if only partial, part of the solution. 
 
But there is a very real need to start matching words with deeds. Over the past decade politicians from across the political spectrum have competed to associate themselves with the idea of the living wage, safe in the knowledge that the voluntary nature of living wage agreements and their partial coverage made doing so almost consequence-free. With the role, rationale, strengths, limitations and policy potential of living wages now under increased scrutiny the window for endorsement devoid of decision is beginning to close. 
 
The transition from approval of living wage initiatives to concrete policy ideas to support their proliferation will not be easy. Yet there is a path for policymakers between inaction and reaching for a legislative solution in the form of a statutory living wage which few living wage advocates would endorse. That path not only involves fostering greater transparency around low pay but also thinking about the use of central and local government’s purchasing power and how the notional savings in state support that would accrue from more extensive living wage coverage might be used to help firms transition to better business models. None of this will be simple. But the alternative of not matching words with deeds is no longer a justifiable option at a time when we need wages to do far more of the heavy lifting if the living standards of low earners are not to decline rapidly. 
 
Matthew Pennycook is senior research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation
A street cleaner passes the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath (Photo: Getty Images)

Matthew Pennycook is MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, and member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee. He is PPS to John Healey. 

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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