At last week’s PMQs, David Cameron derided Ed Miliband as a “one-trick pony”, an embittered reference to his proposed energy price freeze. But that’s not a line he’ll be able to use today. Miliband arrives for the leaders’ weekly bout having once again set the agenda with his plan to expand use of the living wage through tax rebates for businesses.
The Tories have been buoyed by figures showing the services sector expanding at its fastest rate since the month Tony Blair became prime minister, but so long as living standards continue to plummet, they remain on weak ground. Indeed, the more they trumpet the success of the macroeconomy, the more voters will be inclined to ask, “why aren’t I feeling it?”
If he challenges the PM on low pay today (as he surely will), Miliband could begin by recalling his declaration in May 2010 that the living wage was “an idea whose time has come”. But since then, Cameron has had nothing substantive to say on the subject. The Tories’ only response to Miliband’s plan has been to falsely claim that it would lead to higher government borrowing (Howard Reed has crunched the numbers here).
Unsurprisingly, the more thoughtful of Cameron’s MPs are troubled by their party’s seeming opposition to an idea as obviously popular as higher pay (60%, including 44% of Conservative voters, support a universal living wage even if it costs jobs). Blue collar moderniser Robert Halfon (who recently argued on The Staggers in favour an energy windfall tax) has warned: “We mustn’t make the same mistake the Conservatives made ten years ago in opposing the minimum wage. We mustn’t get ourselves in the position of again being against this. That would be a disaster for the party.”
In a piece for the NS in August, Guy Opperman similarly argued: “Britain is a country in which some workers earn so little that the government has to step in and provide aid. That is the system of tax credits we have; a subsidy by any other name and a £4bn one at that. How and why did we let it become acceptable for a full-time job not to pay enough to live on? The living wage isn’t just a wonkish idea – it’s the political world catching up with many Britons’ reality…It may just be the old socialist in me but when did it become a hindrance rather than a duty for a business to look after its employees?”
Armed with quotes like these, Miliband can argue that, just as you don’t have to be a Marxist to believe that the energy companies should bear a greater burden, so you don’t have to be a Marxist to believe that companies can and should pay their workers more.