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Why Labour must be braver on the living wage

With the Tories copying Labour’s ideas it’s time for the party to be bolder on workers’ pay, says RUDI ABDALLAH

IMITATION is the sincerest form of flattery. Pavement ripped off The Fall, Elastica pinched from Wire and the Conservatives are copying Labour’s plans to raise workers’ wages.

Party conference saw Ayn Rand devotee Sajid Javid pledge something his heroine would, er, definitely approve of: state intervention to raise the “living wage” to £10.50 per hour in 2024 and eventually pay it to workers aged 21 and over.

This followed Labour’s announcement to raise the minimum wage for workers aged 18 and over to £10 per hour, the amount the living wage is expected to reach next year. 

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell says everyone over 16 will get more than £10.50 by 2024.

The Living Wage Foundation says the UK living wage is £9 and £10.55 in London. 

There are 5,470 accredited living wage employers across the country, including Ikea, Burberry and Nationwide.

Labour’s proposal is part of a brilliant package of measures, including a 32-hour week within the next decade with no loss of pay, which will bring financial stability to working-class people. 

It needs, however, to be bolder to give the wealth generators breathing space between themselves and debt.

Make no mistake, though, the wage proposal and policy programme are a massive improvement on what scourge of clarity Ed Miliband offered back in 2015. 

Before the 2015 general election the former Labour leader vowed to raise the minimum wage to a whopping £8 and over by 2019, a move typical of his “don’t upset the think tanks or they’ll cry” approach.

Raising wages to £10 per hour matches exactly what is needed to live if forecasts are correct, but pay should not be kept to the bare minimum. 

Labour must make the forces of capital cower and cannot succumb to the timidity of incrementalism. 

Vampires of industry will always oppose any state intervention Labour proposes on wages. 

The reaction to ex-chief butcher of the poor George Osborne’s “living wage” of £8.21 for workers aged 25 and over provided a glimpse of what is to come. 

Osborne did not let the fact it was not a living wage get in the way of his heroically mendacious marketing campaign, nor sceptics from catastrophising.

Kitty Usher, managing director of Tooley Street Research, warned the Financial Times in April 2016 that the policy was “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and could cause around 60,000 job losses before 2020.

On those terms, the capitalists’ fears have, unsurprisingly, not materialised. In February, the Low Pay Commission published its findings on the effects of the “living wage” on employment levels for 2018. 

It concluded that raising the wages of the lowest paid “had little adverse impact on employment retention overall” and found “no robust effect on general employment retention or hours worked.”

Jeremy Corbyn and his team should strive for something ambitious: a £12 UK hourly rate and £15 in London, with a 35-hour working week, so families can meet the minimum income standard for a quality life.

The minimum income standard is a public consultation method used by organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to work out what is needed to secure a minimum level of good living. 

Feedback creates a basket of goods, which uses the minimum income standard to work out daily living costs through public consensus. 

The minimum income standard informs living wage rate calculations, which are done annually by the Resolution Foundation and overseen by the Living Wage Commission.

The minimum income standard is the springboard socialists use to call for braver measures. 

Writing in April, Paula Mitchell of the Socialist Party urged Corbyn and his team to mirror the “15 Now” campaign of fast-food workers in Seattle who sealed a $15 hourly wage in 2014. 

“What is achievable is decided by the struggle,” Mitchell rightly says. Coupled with a 35-hour week, £15 an hour would be £27,000 annually after tax and national insurance. It is not a policy that screams avarice, and, as Mitchell says, would meet the minimum income standard. 

The Tories boast about the British economy being the fifth-largest in the world but 2018 government figures show 14 million people, or more than one in five, trapped in poverty — shameful in a society where members of Cambridge University’s Conservative society guffaw while burning a £20 note in front of a homeless man.

This is not a case of wishing upon a dialectic and hoping for the best. Once upon a time the two main parties clashed over whether to have a minimum wage. 

Now the Tories try to soothe workers with one hand while punching their loved ones with the other.

A £12 UK living wage and £15 London rate would not be panaceas, but will put money in workers’ coffers while kicking doorstep lenders and loan sharks in the pockets.

The Tories can play The 1975’s Give Yourself a Try to Joy Division’s Disorder – ie a tacky copy, as much as they like. 

Their promises will never be implemented because they are wholly subservient to money. What is telling is they now use the rhetoric of the left for short-term approval and to woo the low-paid. 

Javid outdid every Live at the Apollo performer in history by claiming the Tories are “the workers’ party” following the pay-rise promise. 

This is despite the vicious Trade Union Act, reneging on putting workers on boards and just about every Tory policy that has been made law.

One of Corbyn’s triumphs has been to bring socialist, rather than socially democratic, economic ideas into mainstream political debate again. 

The Tories are aping his ideas and he has knocked back accusations of “Miliband-plus” brown bread. To move the project onwards, he must strike at the heart of capital by fighting for a higher living wage.


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