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22 February 2013

The public support a universal living wage – even if it costs jobs

Sixty per cent of workers agree that the minimum wage should be raised to the level of the living wage.

By George Eaton

It’s now hard to find a politician who doesn’t think the living wage is a good idea. Those companies who pay their employees at least £7.45 an hour (or £8.55 in London), report increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, improved morale and higher staff retention rates. And the government benefits too. The IFS estimates that for every £1 spent on raising pay to living wage level, around 50p returns to the Treasury in the form of reduced welfare payments and higher tax revenues. 

It’s statistics like this that prompt some to ask why we shouldn’t simply raise the minimum wage (currently £6.19 an hour) to the level of its younger brother. It’s an option that all party leaders, including Ed Miliband, have so far rejected but what do the voters think? Labour List has just published a new Survation poll (carried out as part of the Unions21 Fair Work Commission) of 1,004 employed people showing that 60 per cent support a compulsory living wage – even if it costs jobs. Asked whether the government should “increase the minimum wage to ensure everyone earns enough to meet reasonable living costs, even if this results in job losses”, 71 per cent of Labour voters, 66 per cent of Lib Dems and 44 per cent of Conservatives say yes. There is, as Mark Ferguson notes, majority support for the move across all regions of the UK and all classes. 

The key qualification, of course, is that only those in employment were polled. Those out of work might be less sympathetic to the idea of a universal living wage. Modelling by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests the policy would reduce labour demand by 160,000 jobs, the equivalent of a 0.5 per cent rise in unemployment. But as Jon Stone has previously argued on The Staggers, the risk of higher unemployment deserves to be weighed against the potential benefits of the move. The Resolution Foundation estimates that a mandatory living wage would save the government £2bn a year in lower benefits and higher tax receipts, money that could be used to fund employment programmes, such as Labour’s jobs guarantee. At the same time, it would dramatically improve work incentives and act as a powerful economic stimulus. 

The public, as is often the case, are ahead of the politicians on this debate. At the very least, the arguments above deserve to be heard in Westminster. 

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