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Editorial: Javid's pay offer is dishonest – but can Labour be the voice of precarious workers?

SAJID JAVID’S promise of a £10.50-an-hour minimum wage for over-21s is, first and foremost, a victory for workers who have defied the odds to fight for better pay in precarious sectors.

Staff who have pulled out the stops — and in many cases defied vicious management bullying — to organise in workplaces such as McDonald’s and Wetherspoon have brought a message about the relevance of trade unionism to a whole generation.

Though lacking the high-profile dimension of disputes at such powerful brands, the contribution of low-paid cleaners and catering staff taking action against penny-pinching contractors delivering cut-price services to government departments and railway stations has been just as significant, forcing ministers to wake up to the anger felt by people working long hours on poverty pay. 

Acknowledging this is not to claim that the trade union movement has triumphed over the Tories. Javid’s offer is, for headline purposes, higher than the legal minimum wage currently being proposed by the Labour Party. But this is misleading, since Labour is committed to delivering £10 an hour next year while Javid’s offer is to raise it to £10.50 within five years.

No matter — the BFAWU was right last month to say we should raise our sights to a £15-an-hour target. Britain’s skewed economy, where typical pay for the CEO of our 100 largest companies has gone from 20 times the average salary 30 years ago to about 120 times the average salary today, does not need a few tweaks here and there but a total overhaul — the fundamental shift in wealth and power to working people that Labour says it will enable.

So Javid’s offer is not enough. Nor is it possible to ignore the political contribution of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to this about-turn from a Tory Party that fought hard to prevent the establishment of a minimum wage in the first place. Labour’s relentless focus on inequality is having an effect. A Tory-leaning press will delight in “tanks on Labour’s lawn;” but that strongly implies that Labour is setting the agenda.

That does not mean our movement can pat itself on the back and say “job done.” The Conservative Party is not a convert to fair pay, nor are we likely to see the political vehicle of hedge funds and high finance act on outsourcing, revoke the anti-union laws or kick the privateers out of our NHS. Nor can we trust it to keep its word: Theresa May’s premiership began with a striking appeal to tackle deep-rooted injustices, followed up by three more years of Cameron’n’Clegg-style austerity.

What we will see is a concerted effort by Boris Johnson to win an election that cannot be long put off. The Tories want the election to be a Brexit election: Johnson’s simplistic “I’ll deliver it” message, shorn of any detail on what “delivering it” will entail in the way of real change, is a rallying cry to Leave voters. Labour’s commitment to a second referendum and its talks with other parties on delaying Brexit are helpful to No 10 for that reason.

But that might not be enough. In 2017, the Tories, the Lib Dems and the media sought to fight a Brexit election, and the people of this country had other ideas. Labour’s articulation of concerns over poverty, injustice and ownership and control of the economy did much to bridge the Leave-Remain divide. Tory strategists remember how gushing predictions that they would win a landslide were disproved by events.

Javid’s offer is a bid to protect the Tory flank from an attack over low pay. It’s dishonest and it’s see-through. Labour can expose the party of privilege as the parasites they are. But to do so it must be rooted in the direct struggles taking place at workplace level and not get sucked into Westminster games.

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