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14 July 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:18pm

How to resist: what the success of the Living Wage tells us about forcing change

There is an appetite for activism we haven’t seen for a generation.

By Matthew Bolton

George Osborne appeared to relish the chance to dub the 2017 Conservative effort “one of the worst manifestos in history by a governing party” in the Evening Standard. Yet the first specific policy that it does mention, in the foreword by Theresa May, is one he introduced as chancellor – called the “national living wage”.

In a document short of many policy commitments at all, the Conservatives made clear their plans to increase the wages of the lowest paid, albeit to a rate below the real Living Wage.

You have to flick through to page 47 of the Labour manifesto to find its commitment to the Living Wage, but this doesn’t reflect the real prominence that this policy had in Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign. The Labour leader and party continue to make a big deal of the promise that a Labour government would adopt the higher rates used by the Living Wage Foundation, as opposed to the lower “national living wage” of the current government, and extend it to under-25s.

What’s the story behind this rare political consensus? What are the lessons to be drawn from this extraordinary campaign, launched in a church hall in Walthamstow, north-east London, in 2001, that has now lifted hundreds of thousands out of working poverty and won a pay rise for millions more.

There is an appetite for activism we haven’t seen for a generation. People are angry and they want to see change, but they don’t know how. I wrote How to Resist to help that energy and anger be channelled into effective action, rather than be lost into disappointment or riot.

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First, if you want change, you need power. It’s not enough to have a good idea, the moral high ground, or a well evidenced policy. The Living Wage campaign was started by an organisation that already had some capacity, 30 communities in an alliance in east London with a couple of paid staff. But with that modest power, the aim was not to persuade the government to change the law.

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We picked a specific and achievable target of persuading local hospitals and banks to improve pay for contracted-out cleaners. Through a process of incremental change, the campaign built momentum to the point that in 2004, we had the power to persuade Ken Livingstone to support the Living Wage as mayor of London. The implication is that people who want to make the world a better place must get over their discomfort with power, and spend as much time analysing and building power as they do discussing how the world ought to be.

A good power analysis helps understand what’s winnable and identify the points of leverage.

Second, change requires action and tension. Just getting noticed by busy decision-makers, let alone forcing your issue through, involves creative democratic confrontation. So, we have carried out hundreds of protests of all shapes and sizes, many of which have been failures, nearly all of which have been fun.

We wrote to the Hilton hotel several times requesting a meeting to discuss the fact that cleaners were being paid £2.50 a room, meaning they were ending up with less than the minimum wage. After several refusals to meet with us, we crashed the Hilton Hotel charity ball in suits and dresses and gave out leaflets about the Living Wage to all the guests. We slipped the flyers under hotel room doors, we left them in the toilets and we asked people to speak to the management about how they could justify charging up to £250 per room but paying people poverty wages.

Hilton security threatened to have a 75-year-old female campaigner arrested until they realised this would be a public relations disaster. It would have been just the kind of overreaction that really helps expose the injustice of a more powerful adversary. Putting this into practice means moving away from the one-off symbolic protests designed to raise awareness, and towards targeted action to create tension with a specific decision-maker, as part of an ongoing strategy.

Third, the power of unusual alliances. The point at which the Living Wage campaign accelerated in its impact on workers and its influence on Westminster was with the introduction of the Living Wage Foundation. For years, we had been inviting businesses that had been persuaded to pay a Living Wage to public events, and thanking them with these rather odd flowery garlands.

Thankfully, KPMG, who after a big protest outside their HQ had taken to the Living Wage with great enthusiasm, helped us see the potential in an employer accreditation scheme that would go beyond a thank you, to ensure compliance and help turn employers into public champions. By putting business leadership alongside the voice of low-paid workers and communities, this move created an unusual alliance that was hard to ignore and impossible to dismiss.

We avoided the challenge that the Living Wage movement faces in the US, as largely a pitched battle with unions and communities on one side and business on the other. Here in the UK there are now almost 3,500 accredited Living Wage Employers, and big names such as Nationwide, Ikea and Burberry put their own energy into pushing the campaign further. In a political culture that seems to be getting increasingly polarised, community organising offers campaigners a way to find unlikely allies that add power to their cause and build co-operation across divides.

Matthew Bolton is the author of How to Resist: Turn Protest to Power, published by Bloomsbury