The Minimum Wage – where are we 15 years on?

1st August, 2013 9:23 am

For many in the Labour movement, July 31st, 1998, isn’t a memorable date: it’s no 1900 ‘Khaki election’, no 1924 first Labour Prime Minister, and no 1997 landslide. However, the first UK National Minimum Wage Act was indeed a historic moment. Millions of workers across the UK were earning as little as £1 an hour – two million people benefited from the act immediately, and it’s estimated that a further 20 million have benefited since. 15 years on, and Labour hasn’t stopped wanting better pay for those who earn the least in Britain: now however, much of the debate (and action) has moved on to the idea of a Living Wage. Trade unions, Movement for Change, Labour Students and of course Labour councils up and down the country have been fighting for – and winning – the Living Wage.

As always, Labour has led the way when it comes to challenging poverty pay. Keir Hardie’s dream, that he first vocalised over a century ago, became official Labour Party policy. It goes without saying that Trade Unions have fought for better pay since their inception. And, as always, the Tories have been in opposition. In 1986, responding to Neil Kinnock’s policy to enshrine a National Minimum Wage in law, Thatcher claimed in a speech to Conservative Party conference that such a minimum wage would ‘put people out of jobs. The prospects of young people would be blighted by Labour’s minimum wage policy, because people could not then afford to employ them and give them a start in life.’

Following the 1997 election, and Labour’s public intention to introduce a minimum wage re-iterated, a certain David Cameron said such a measure ‘would send unemployment straight back up’. It didn’t. According to Ian McCartney – the minister Blair asked to put the bill together – the Conservatives then went on to fight it line by line, clause by clause: it became the longest running session of a Parliamentary bill in British history. Fast forward to 2002, and a study from the University of Warwick came to the conclusion that ‘no significant adverse employment effects are found for any of the four demographic groups considered (adult and youth, men and women).’ Eventually, in 2005, David Cameron admitted that the minimum wage has been a success, yes. It turned out much better than many people expected.’

Today however, it’s almost impossible to live on the minimum wage without receiving further in work benefits, such as working tax credits and housing benefit – and we all know the direction they are headed under this government. Currently, around six out of ten households living in poverty have at least one adult in employment. The picture is a complex one, but essentially the state subsidises the employers who don’t pay their employees enough to live on, and the landlords who charge too much. It is in this context that the concept of – and campaign for – a Living Wage has come into its own. And, although Cameron has described it as ‘an idea whose time has come’, he has done very little to turn words into action.

Following two of the strongest Labour traditions – fighting for better working conditions, and organising to do so – our movement has turned words into actions, and has done so emphatically. From Kent to Manchester, from Leicester to Dundee, Labour Students have worked with Movement for Change, using Community Organising techniques and strategies to relationships with trade unions, workers, and other student societies to take the issue of a Living Wage right to the top of their institutions. At a Living Wage reception in London held by Movement for Change and Labour Students, Rachel Reeves highlighted that if the minimum wage had risen in line with the wages of those at the top, it would be over £19 an hour now. She proudly reeled off a list of Labour Councils which had implemented the Living Wage: Islington, Hackney, Camden, Cardiff, and Lambeth to name a few. Roger McKenzie talked about the fantastic work UNISON had been doing to win the Living Wage for its members. And Movement for Change could, through our partnership with Labour Students, highlight the highly effective organising being done on campuses throughout the UK.

Petitions have been used, but so have fun and interesting actions: in Dundee, Connor dressed as a ‘fat cat’ and encouraged those present (including local TV, radio, and newspapers) to play ‘Is Pete’s Price Right?’ which highlighted the pay difference between the Dundee Principal and the lowest paid workers. In Swansea, Movement for Change activist Mitch organised a coffee morning and listening action for cleaners providing free tea and coffee after the university had told them they could no longer use hot water – even if they brought their own tea bags! Mitch then went on to be one of the youngest cabinet members on Swansea Council, where he was instrumental in ensuring they introduced the Living Wage. And in Manchester, Finn, alongside workers, and other student societies, held a negotiation with the Vice Chancellor which resulted in the university implementing the Living Wage.

Back in 1998, I was on a march with my Dad in Newcastle to celebrate the introduction of the minimum wage. The economy was growing, a huge Labour majority was sitting in parliament, and the Spice Girls were at the top of the charts. Unfortunately (come on, who doesn’t love girl power?!) Britain in 2013 is a very different place. The reality is clear: we can do more in government that we can outside, and we need to aim for a 2015 win. Organising for a Living Wage is just one example of how we can work towards this while still making a difference now. We need to do what we do best, and what we’ve been doing for over a century: we need to get organised.

Movement for Change will be hosting a conference event with Rachel Reeves MP and UNISON: ‘Can Labour Win the Living Wage’ will be at lunch time on Monday 23rd September. Details to follow at www.movementforchange.org.uk.

Many of those involved in organising for a Living Wage had attended a Movement for Change intensive training weekend: you can book your place here.

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