I’m on my way to Islington this morning to hear Ed Miliband return to a subject that is close to his heart – the Living Wage.
Two years ago I watched Miliband speak to volunteers in his campaign office about the Living Wage. Most of them were young, straight out of school and university. Many we’re facing minimum wage jobs, if they could get a job at all. For them, it was a message that hit home. Hard.
It was an issue that invigorated Ed’s leadership campaign, helping him to recruit volunteers and secure wavering voters. And it resonated – inside and outside the party – because it’s important, and appeals to people’s basic sense of fair play. If you work, you should be paid well enough to live without being dogged by poverty. It’s a hard message to argue against, and it places Miliband and Labour on the right side of history.
And yet, I still have a nagging feeling that it doesn’t go far enough. If we accept that the National Minimum Wage still leaves people living in abject poverty – and it does – then why are we willing to accept that as a legal wage floor? If the Living Wage is the level at which people can be reasonably expected to live and support themselves, why don’t we demand that the NMW is set at that level? To do otherwise is to tacitly accept that some will still be employed on poverty wages. I find that difficult to stomach.
The proponents of the Living Wage would argue that employers choosing to buy in to the Living Wage – either by conviction or co-ercion – is in itself a good thing. It opens up channels of communication between staff and employers that helps to improve relationships in the workplace in other intangible ways. They would also argue that it empowers working people to fight for a better deal. I agree – I wouldn’t be a trade unionist if I didn’t. Similarly they’d argue that “naming and shaming” employers who don’t pay the Living Wage might coerce them into paying the Living Wage. It’s possible, and in some cases it may work, but – call me old fashioned – I’d like to coerce employers out of paying poverty wages with legislation.
More cynical souls might suggest that the Living Wage is not enshrined in law because it would spook the business community, or could cost jobs. Those very same arguments were of course used against the minimum wage. Even more cynical types suggest that the Living Wage is newer and fresher than the Minimum Wage – and is politically distinct from the Blair era. I would hope that such petty politicking plays no part, when we are talking about the lives and paycheques of millions of people…
The problem is that as hard as I’ve tried, nothing has yet convinced me that Labour campaigning for a Living Wage is preferable to Labour committing to boosting the minimum wage. Every financial or fiscal argument in favour of the Living Wage is the same (but stronger) for a living minimum wage. As a growth multiplier, as a means to eliminate in work poverty and as a means of reducing child poverty – an across the board increase on the minimum wage would have a greater impact than a piecemeal Living Wage approach, however well co-ordinated.
Every council in the country – and every business – who are already paying the Living Wage should be applauded for what they’ve done. At a difficult financial time, they’ve taken a massive step. But now it’s time for every employer to be asked to do the same thing.