Battleground 2015: Protecting our standards of living

A few weeks ago, we learnt that inflation has increased to 2.7 percent, whilst the Bank of England said that it expects inflation to exceed the three percent mark at some point this year. Meanwhile, the growth of pay has been just 1.3 percent and most social security benefits are either frozen or limited to a one percent rise over the next three years. The squeeze on living standards remains a very real issue, and the growing disparity between social security, the rate of inflation and low wage increases means that living standards are put under severe strain. This is despite growing awareness for things like the Living Wage Campaign that have sought to re-focus efforts on dignity in employment. Coupled with low overall economic growth (coasting at pretty much nil since 2010, and achieving only 0.3 percent in the last quarter) the consequences have been alarming for working people.

George Osborne’s recent Spending Review has reinforced those trends and, given the fiscal commitments he has made, the Coalition has now set the terms of debate for the 2015 election. It will be, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies claimed, an ‘austerity election’ because successive governments will have to impose further spending cuts of £23bn between 2015 and 2017. This is a contentious agenda, which will see public expenditure plunge below 40 percent of GDP – and below that of the US, Germany and Japan. Public spending will fall by over 6 percent between 2012 and 2017; in the US, it will fall by just 1.26 percent. The UK is therefore rebalancing its economy in a very drastic way in a short time period compared with other major economies. Labour must challenge this agenda. But it must also ask a basic question about its raison d’être: what is the purpose of the left in a period of austerity, in a period of low economic growth, and in a period of declining support for the welfare state?

From the mid-1990s, Labour could rely on economic growth to redistribute wealth – in other words, correct the problems caused by capitalism without dealing with the cause itself. Looking towards the horizon of 2015, this is clearly not possible from an economic perspective, nor desirable because popularity for the welfare state has waned. It means that Labour must support social justice and equality – both central to achieve fairness – in a different way. Labour can no longer focus on a large state and solely on the redistribution of wealth to achieve its goals. Things such as working tax credits have perpetuated market inequalities, where the government spends billions to essentially subsidise companies for low pay. This is one of the central reasons that we must turn towards a living wage to support people in jobs. The living wage is as much about economic equality as it is about social justice. Labour was founded on such a principle, aiming to improve social cohesion and fighting for the right for every person to have an opportunity at a good life. This was a founding aim for guild socialism, co-operatives and trade unions. We must remember that greater economic justice is not an end in itself, but the mechanism by which we can achieve a better society – a society in which we, as communities, can determine our collective fate and in which we, as individuals, can pursue our conceptions of happiness. Unfortunately, this seems so have been forgotten sometime after the Second World War, possibly somewhere amidst the creation of a bureaucratic welfare state. The Labour Party focused too much energy on correcting the faults of the capitalist economy: it focused on tidying up inequality, rather than challenging its causes.

Labour would do well to look to the principle of living standards as a central guiding force for policy. The protection of living standards is the belief that all individuals have a right to a minimum standard of living through dignity in work, good mental (as well as physical) well-being and reasonably priced public services available for all. In other words, life should be affordable and not a daily struggle for survival. The Coalition government has entirely abandoned these aims: the cost of essential goods has increased by 25 percent since 2008 without ameliorative efforts. Living standards are now at their lowest level since at least 2004-05, and the IFS has concluded that: ‘Prospects for living standards are […] bleak – further falls are likely to be followed by a weak recovery, leaving average income growth even lower in the 2010s than in the 2000s’. [1]

Labour’s alternative to austerity must be a return to the principles of a decent standard of living. Living standards resonate with people, so long as it is associated with the beliefs of dignity in work, social security based on a contributory principle, and a distribution of wealth based on just deserts. The idea of a ‘squeezed middle’, scoffed at by so many a couple of years ago, was a bold move that has since become an important reference point for debates around austerity. It requires the following commitments from Labour:

  • A minimum living wage. This, beyond anything else, will be a test for Labour. The Party must commit to the introduction of a living wage across the country. There are calls for the national minimum wage to be raised to become the living wage, which I would echo. [2]
  • Protection of basic economic rights. Calls from Conservatives suggest that austerity may cause the repeal of employment rights. Tory europhobes, too, want to repeal rights in order to create a more ‘flexible’ labour market. If anything, these need to be strengthened to ensure basic rights for workers.
  • Regulating prices. Our utility companies are hardly subject to competitive frameworks. Water companies have monopolies over certain areas, and energy companies make it difficult to switch to cheaper rates. [3] This must be challenged through a regulatory framework, coupled with a green investment strategy.
  • Social investments. For example, we need to continue to invest in education at all levels (from pre-school support to post-graduate funding). This will balance equality of opportunity as social mobility will increase, and it will also act as an incentive for further investment from businesses.
  • A strategy for growth. Social security benefits are rising because our economy is not growing. A growing economy – that is rebalanced towards sustainability, with regulative frameworks in place – has the opportunity to not only lower social security, but also to strengthen dignity in work.

Labour can be radical in its approach towards living standards. It speaks to a positive vision for what economics is for. It is an approach that moves Labour away from the falsely constructed ‘strivers versus skivers’ debate. Ultimately, this is also not about austerity. This is about using the resources we have to achieve radical outcomes for greater social justice and equal opportunities for all, without the need to necessarily increase public expenditure.

mg

[1] Institute for Fiscal Studies (2013) Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2013, London: IFS, p.28. Available here.

[2] A living wage is important because it would ensure dignity in work for the employed, it would boost the spending power of individuals (gross earnings would be up by £6.5bn) and it would ensure a more productive workforce. Crucially, it would also allow the Treasury to achieve gross savings of £3.6bn if universally applied. See this report by the IPPR and Resolution Foundation for more details.

[3] The Power Book, presented by Caroline Flint at the last Labour Annual Conference was a step in the right direction. For more, see: Local Government Information Unit (2012) The Power Book, London: LGiU.

The Living Wage: Supporting living standards, economic prosperity and consumer freedom

The Living Wage Campaign is a laudable campaign that seeks to protect and strengthen employee rights. The LW will be a key factor for economic recovery and crucially helps to re-balance our economic system in favour of the citizen. A decent, living wage has three positive claims: first, it rests on a moral claim that people should not be treated as cheap commodities; second, it rests on a economic claim that it will increase growth through greater consumer spending; and third, it rests on a political claim that will allow citizens to spend their money more ethically.

Living Standards

The Living Wage Campaign was founded on the principle that work should be rewarding, and that it should bring dignity. Consequently, wages should be enough to provide families the essentials of life. [1] The campaign has roots that go back to the late nineteenth century, where one MP wrote: ‘A living wage must be sufficient to maintain the worker in the highest state of industrial efficiency, with decent surroundings and sufficient leisure’. [2] A living wage is important because the minimum wage is not enough for a sufficiently comfortable life in the twenty-first century. This is not about luxury, it is about protecting living standards:

  • The Living Wage has had a colossal effect on reducing in-work poverty. Since 2001, over 45,000 families have been lifted out of working poverty, directly as a result of the LWC.
  • Relatedly, the LW contributes to a reduction in fuel poverty. A living wage would cut the horrifying situation where people have to choose between their radiator and their dinner (especially at a time when fuel bills are going up).
  • The LW is about increasing the health of employees. A higher wage means less stress, and could ensure that the money is spent on better quality food, goods and services (with obvious health benefits).
  • Being paid the minimum wage prevents parents from seeing their children at weekends because they end up with two or three jobs to make ends meet. The LW intends to end such a situation, ensuring hard-working parents’ strain is eased through wage security.
  • Better living standards will have an effect on the economy: a happier, healthier workforce will lead to higher productivity, fewer ‘sick days’ and a greater sense of social cohesion. The modest effect that the LW will have on reducing inequality is vital. [3]

Economic Prosperity

The last three bullet points of the above section have already hinted that the Living Wage plays an important part in prosperity. This is something that goes beyond the individual level, or as the Mayor of London puts it: ‘Paying the London Living Wage is not only morally right, but makes good business sense too’ (quote from LWC Website). Independent studies have shown that 80 percent of employers believed that the LW increased employees’ quality of work, and absenteeism decreased by approximately 25 percent. Two thirds of employers reported a significant impact on recruitment and retention within their organisation. 70 percent of employers felt that the Living Wage had increased consumer awareness of their organisation’s commitment to be an ethical employer. [4]

The benefits for the economy are important for the macro-level too. Higher wages allow for greater consumer spending. Workers’ spending on consumption accounts for roughly half of GDP in advanced economies. Lower wages means less spending, and hence less demand for economic output. Unless this is more than offset by new investment or exports, total output will contract as a result of a wage cut, and employment will fall. [5] Unfortunately, the UK is not export-focused. Combine that with government cuts and decreases to global investment, and we have stagnation in economic output (enter the double-dip recession). A Living Wage could counter some of these negative effects.

Citizenship

Ultimately, giving the employee more economic power can only be a good thing. A massive problem for the low-paid is that their choices, in economic terms, are diluted. They are forced to shop in the cheapest possible places, without any regard to the ethical or moral outcomes. Plenty of people do not buy goods with a Fairtrade mark simply because it is more expensive. Should our moral and ethical choices be limited because we are paid less? No. [6] I am not saying that we should all be paid enough so that we can go to Waitrose, or that everyone should buy free range eggs. But surely there is a problem if shoppers buy unethically because they are paid unethically?

A link between ethical consumption and the LW definitely exists. The LWC is not just about individual changes to eating more healthily, but also about wider societal efforts to create a more ethically-balanced economy. Higher wages means that spending power of the consumer could be directed towards more ethical goods – precisely those Fairtrade, free range and environmentally-friendly products that cost marginally more. Wages affect attitudes to shopping. As one commentator puts it: ‘spenders of the world, unite!’. [7] The LW could enhance exactly this sort of behaviour to create a more ethically-based capitalism.

Fighting For A Living Wage

A living wage has unparalleled benefits for living standards of employees, benefits the economic growth of this country, and can ensure that citizens become more active in their consumer choices. There are other reasons for introducing the LW. One is that it would reduce the need for taxpayers to effectively subsidise employers who pay their staff too little, because state benefits, such as working tax credits, would be reduced.

It is hugely misleading to say that the Living Wage would ‘kill business’. For most businesses – and especially in banking, IT and construction – implementing the LW would represent less than a one percent rise in overall costs; in other industries the costs are a few percentage points higher, but a phase-in could mitigate any harms. [8] Indeed, one way to increase the take-up rate would be to offer tax-cutting incentives to small- and medium-sized businesses for introducing a living wage.

Analysis has also shown that simply reducing income tax rates – touted as one alternative to the LW – is poorly targeted and cuts the British tax base even further, which would perversely increase debt (cut income tax but pay tax credits equals higher debt burden).

For all those reasons, I’m very happy that the Labour Party has announced its unequivocal support for the Living Wage and that Sheffield Labour Students supports this campaign. I’m also proud to support the Living Wage Campaign in Sheffield more generally. And I’m more than happy that Sheffield City Council will introduce a living wage for all its staff.

mg

Notes

[1] D. Hirsch and R. Moore (2011) The Living Wage in the United Kingdom, London: Citizens UK, p.4. Report available here.

[2] Ibid., p.4.

[3] For instance, see R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, London: Penguin.

[4] These figures are drawn from the Living Wage Foundation. Click here for more details.

[5] J. Stanford (2008) Economics for Everyone, London: Pluto Press, pp.158-9.

[6] One very interesting example of this in action was Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall’s Channel 4 three-part documentary, Hugh’s Chicken Run, from a few years ago. Here, local residents learnt about free range chicken, but some residents simply could not afford to eat ethical chicken – even if they wanted to.

[7] D. Jeffery (2012) ‘A Call to Arms: Spenders of the world, unite!’, Canvas 3:6. Article available here.

[8] M. Pennycock (2012) What Price a Living Wage? Understanding the impact of a living wage on firm-level wage bills, London: IPPR. Report available here.