Real wages are still falling and on current trends it may take a decade or more before living standards recover to where they were prior to the financial crash in 2008. “All pain and no gain” is hardly a winning slogan for the Coalition, and it could cost Cameron a second term. The legacy of the wasted years will be more poverty and more in-work poverty, more unemployment and more under-employment, and widening income and wage inequality. Labour is working on a recovery plan for jobs and growth, but it will also need an alternative strategy for the world of work which offers better pay for those on low to medium incomes.
Labour’s narrative and core values for a post-austerity age must be centred as much on sharing and redistribution, as it has been of late on growing the economic cake. That has to include fairness at work and fair pay as well as fairness between the have’s and have nots and between the generations. A distinctive Labour offer to improve pay and conditions will be critical to winning back the millions of blue collar workers who left Labour since 1997, particularly when contrasted against the Coalition’s wage freeze and Tory plans to promote insecurity at work by giving employers greater flexibility to hire and fire.
Voters are angry about high pay and unconvinced that low pay is the answer. However, there is widespread cynicism about the ability of politicians to intervene in the market to make a difference. But this could change if the pay gap keeps widening. The latest IFS analysis forecasts that by the time the next General Election comes around, average pay and incomes could slip back to where they were in 2003. We are moving backwards at a quite alarming rate. So by any measure, there can be no speedy return to the status quo ante.
It is worth remembering that the fall in real wages and widening income inequality began under Thatcher in the 1980s but continued under New Labour’s watch. Despite some fantastic achievements (particularly the national minimum wage), real wages stagnated under Labour before the crash. Employment increased, and people were better off, but the bulk of the proceeds of growth went to the top 1%. Labour did bring poverty rates down, but took its eye off income inequality.
The Smith Institute’s research shows that the reason for this was down to New Labour’s reluctance to support a wider range of interventions in the Labour market. The focus was all on improving the role of the tax and benefit system (especially tax credits), rather than how the market distributes its rewards through pay deals before the state gets involved. Labour was reluctant to challenge the employers’ organisations and make the necessary changes. This is a shame, because there was real repair work to do. The previous Conservative administration dismantled as many of the so-called ‘agencies of pre-distribution’ as they could lay their hands on.
Their intention was to empower employers, while keeping the unions firmly in check.
But it wasn’t just the attack on collective bargaining which exaggerated the wage gap between the boardroom and the shop floor, but a deliberate rolling back of labour rights, wages councils and fair wages resolutions. Why Labour was so reluctant to redress the power imbalance at work is for the historians to debate. The key question now must be, what will a 2015 Labour Government do?
There needs to be a strong Labour counter on high pay, but capping top pay doesn’t deliver fairer pay for others. The rewards could just be shifted to shareholders and Sovereign Wealth Funds. Better pay transparency (as offered in the US Dodd-Frank Act) and better corporate governance will help, but if we want so-called “responsible capitalism” we’ll need more than that.
One potential route is to rebuild the unions and other organisations that engage with the workplace – particularly in the private sector. That’s easier said than done, but collective bargaining can make a big difference. Labour also needs to consider other labour market interventions, such as fair wage clauses in public contracts. Employers will argue that they can’t afford it (as they did with the minimum wage), but the evidence we have shows that this approach works well in other EU countries, so why not here? We could also link fair wage clauses with the Living Wage and with so-called social clauses, which discriminate in favour of using the local workface.
Fair wage clauses are not a panacea to tackling in-work poverty, and will not of themselves narrow income inequalities, but they are a start, and would show that Labour is serious about tackling income inequality.
Paul Hackett is Director of the Smith Institute