Perhaps the Labour Party’s low-key approach to this Thursday’s European and local council elections is a part of some tactical master plan dreamt up by David Axelrod, Labour’s shiny new ‘strategic adviser’ and the organisational force behind Barack Obama’s successful 2008 US election campaign. Perhaps Axelrod took one look at Labour leader Ed Miliband, a man with as much popular appeal as a runny nose, and thought the party’s best hope lay in hiding him from view. Absence makes the electorate grow fonder and all that.
Still, eventually Labour had to do something. Its leading figures may have thought that it was a good idea, given New Labour’s less-than-stellar legacy, just to wait for people to grow to dislike the Tories rather than put Labour itself out there. But it’s not quite working out as they imagined. The Tories are certainly not a powerful electoral force, but Labour is now actually behind in some opinion polls and the General Election is just a year away.
So, like a fading rock band struggling to win over fans old and new with their latest noodling, Labour has decided to play what amounts to an old classic: the national minimum wage, a policy tune first pushed in the mid-1990s, and one to which people at least know the words. In fact, as Miliband’s predecessor Gordon Brown discovered at the 2009 Labour Party conference, the national minimum wage was just about the only achievement of Labour’s then 12-year reign that party members were prepared to greet with something that sounded like a big, unashamed cheer.
Labour even has a brand spanking new review of the national minimum wage, undertaken by former KPMG executive Alan Buckle, to accompany its big policy (re)announcement. The new electoral selling point is the recommendation that the minimum wage be linked to median earnings, rather than be set according to what the economy can afford. Miliband clearly found this inspirational. ‘It is time to raise our sights again because Britain can do better than this’, he said. ‘The next Labour government will restore the link between hard work and building a decent life for your family.’ Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Miliband even gave the heart strings a good old tug: ‘[Buckle’s minimum wage proposal] gets at a terrible scandal in this country of five million in low-paid work unable to make ends meet. We have got to tackle it and I just don’t think we can carry on as we are. The minimum wage has done a good job in tackling the worst of exploitation but we have now got to tackle low pay.’
But there is a bit of a problem for Miliband if he thinks talk of raising the minimum wage, even with a link to median earnings, will set voters’ pulses racing. The Tories and the Lib Dems have also expressed support for raising the minimum wage. Indeed, the Tories and the Lib Dems have also expressed support for the so-called living wage (which would be even higher than the minimum wage, but would not be legally enforced). It is now one of those policies around which an aura of virtue hangs. You’re more likely to get a Conservative minister calling for a return of the death penalty than challenging the idea of raising the minimum wage, let alone, as once might have been the case, abolishing it.