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London: Labour must lead on the living wage
The Guardian
Matthew Pennycook

July 20, 2011
View the Original Article

For a brief period last year, vocal support for the concept of a "living wage" spanned the political spectrum. As part of his bid to decontaminate the Conservative brand, David Cameron pronounced the living wage an idea "whose time has come". In a clumsy attempt to take credit for its London variant, he declared the London living wage a Conservative initiative, provoking a blunt rebuke from its true initiator, Ken Livingstone.

Labour's 2010 general election manifesto contained a pledge to introduce a living wage for workers in central government and Gordon Brown's passionate tribute to the living wage stirred him to his best speech of the campaign. This newfound orthodoxy seemed to offer a measure of hope for the millions of households in Britain who struggle with working poverty on a daily basis and the 58% of children in poverty who live in households with one or more adults in work.

Ed Miliband placed the living wage at the heart of his successful campaign for the Labour leadership, speaking of its potential to make Britain a "fairer and more prosperous place". His leadership campaign championed the benefits of a living wage in reduced absenteeism, greater productivity, lower staff turnover and greater dignity in work. The combination of economic and moral imperatives convinced more than 400 Labour councillors from every part of the country to pledge to support the living wage in their own localities.

Given the apparent strength of this consensus, one might have imagined an unstoppable wave of living wage initiatives in the months since. Yet progress has been fitful and sporadic. In contrast to his effusive support prior to the election, the prime minister has failed to provide leadership on the issue. It remains the case that only one Whitehall department pays all its staff the London living wage. In the private sector, and particularly among those companies that the media routinely designate living wage employers, vocal commitment to the policy often serves to mask the partial nature of its implementation.

This is not a counsel of despair. Real progress has been made to boost the wages of some of those at the bottom end of the labour market and to tackle low pay and in-work poverty. In London, all members of the Greater London Authority (GLA) continue to pay all their employees – whether direct, contracted or temporary – working on GLA group premises the London living wage. Over 700 contracted cleaning, catering and security staff working for Tube Lines now receive £8.30 an hour. A range of higher education institutions either pay the living wage or are committed to implementing it when the relevant contracts are up for renewal. Sainsbury's checkout staff recently staged a protest demanding an increase from the current minimum at that company's AGM.

In local government, despite swingeing cuts and the constraints that come with a duty to deliver best value through public sector contracts, Labour-controlled local authorities continue to set the agenda. Councils in Manchester, Oxford, Preston, Glasgow, Lewisham, Ealing, Islington and Southwark have adopted living wage policies. Only last week, Dumfries and Galloway council committed themselves to a living wage of £7.15 an hour and others, such as Newcastle, are working with unions on implementation proposals. Many are acting as local advocates in an effort to make inroads into the private sector. Glasgow has registered more than 150 living wage employers in the city employing more than 50,000 people.

These initiatives show it is Labour that is willing to move beyond the rhetoric and match words with deeds when it comes to the living wage. In London, Livingstone is wrestling back the initiative by committing to make the living wage a condition of procurement, employment and services within the GLA, pledging to reinforce the living wage unit at City Hall and making clear his intention to work with London boroughs to launch a living wage charter.

And yet, in contrast to the flurry of local and regional initiatives, there have been no signs of an emerging national policy from the party. Much of the in-depth policy thinking must await the report of the low pay policy review headed by Angela Eagle, but Labour can and should be leading on the issue now. It can do so by nurturing those Labour authorities that have implemented living wage initiatives, stridently supporting proposals from other Labour-controlled authorities across the country and spreading best practice. As Miliband said last September, "no one who does a hard day's work should have to live in poverty". Labour should start making the living wage a reality today by showing that it is already both a possible and preferable part of the solution to working poverty.