There’s more to life than making ends meet

The Living Wage campaign, backed by all parties, shows how much the wage question has turned from a political fight into an experts’ debate.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Like fairness or tackling inequality, the so-called living wage, a wage that ‘affords people the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families’, is clearly one of those buzzy, fuzzy, seemingly agreeable notions with which members of the British political class just love to be associated.

After all, which politician would oppose a wage that allows people to live in greater comfort? To politicos’ ears, the living wage just sounds like A Good Thing, something as incontrovertibly right as recycling or not liking racism. This probably explains why, in the middle of Living Wage Week, we have seen Labour and Tory politicians falling over themselves to extol their commitment to the living wage.

First up was charm-dodging Labour leader Ed Miliband, who had solicited the support of his unofficial replacement, big brother David, and the leader of the Unison trade union, David Prentis. In a blur of op-eds, interviews and press-released speeches, the trio came out very strongly in favour of the living wage. Miliband (the Ed version) had even found some heartstrings on which to give a good old pull: ‘There are almost five million people in Britain who aren’t earning enough [for] the living wage’, he warbled; ‘people who got up early this morning, spent hours getting to work – who are putting in all the effort they can – but who often don’t get paid enough to look after their families, to heat their homes, feed their kids, care for elderly relatives and plan for the future’.

But no sooner had the Miliband Brothers played their lachrymose set, than the Tories’ current heartthrob, London mayor Boris Johnson, was reaffirming his longstanding commitment to the London-specific living wage, established by Johnson’s predecessor Ken Livingstone in 2005, by raising it by 25p to £8.55 an hour. ‘[T]he living wage’, said Johnson, ‘helps businesses to boost the bottom line and ensures that hard-working people who contribute to London’s success can enjoy a decent standard of living’. Not that Johnson’s enthusiasm for the living wage was controversial in Tory circles; it merely echoed that of prime minister David Cameron, who proclaimed the living wage ‘a good and attractive idea… whose time has come’.

It’s not difficult to see why the idea has generated so much cross-party consent. To be in favour of it is seen to be in favour of improving the lives of millions of working people in the UK. Its progressiveness, its moral rectitude, appears unassailable. And, unlike the lower minimum wage, which is set by the chancellor of the exchequer and legally enforced by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, companies and organisations don’t have to pay it if they don’t want to. Rather, the living wage is an ethical recommendation, an amount that ought to be paid not one that has to be paid. The political class can enjoy the warm moralising glow that comes from being associated with such a proposal, but without also having to bear responsibility for people not receiving it.

But what seems to be ignored is that the very idea of the living wage is not actually as progressive as its numerous advocates in high places insist. This is not to say that people’s wages shouldn’t be increased; indeed, people are not nearly wealthy enough in our society. No, the problem with the living wage is that it places an officially sanctioned limit on what people ought to aspire to. Yes, the recommended living wage for over-21s of £7.45 an hour (outside of London) is better than the statutory minimum wage of £6.19. And yes, if an employer paid the living wage, it would obviously make a difference to the lives of those currently scraping together an existence on the legal minimum. But the living wage still does not amount to that much.

In fact, for a 36-hour week – the British average – it amounts to about £14,000 per year before tax. To put that into perspective, the median average for full-time employees in the UK stands at just over £26,000. And MPs themselves – that is, the people who might vote on any living wage proposals – are on a minimum of £65,738 per year.

In other words, the so-called living wage is clearly set at a level on which many would find it very unpleasant to live. So despite all the pitying and patronising guff about giving hard-working Brits enough to live on, celebrating the living wage effectively turns a low wage into an acceptable wage – not for its advocates, of course, who earn considerably more, but certainly for those in whose name they claim to speak.

And that is part of the problem. Historically in Britain, wage levels were the subject of political conflict, battled over by competing social constituencies, and mediated by powerful, often competing trade unions and their political wing, the Labour Party. As problematic as this was, the idea of what, to use current parlance, was a living wage, of what was enough, was constantly being challenged by people wanting more. In this context, the idea of being told what was a correct amount to live on would have been anathema.

With the defeat of the left in the 1980s, this changed. The collective struggle for better wages was replaced by the official sanctioning of what was deemed an acceptable wage. And with the establishment of the minimum wage by the New Labour government in 1998, wages had finally changed from being an object of political contestation to an object of expert-led legal deliberation.

The idea of the living wage is a product of this moment. The term may well have been floating around since liberal-ish reformers in the 1870s first mooted it – but it only really acquired its current form in the 2000s, when the campaign group London Citizens launched the Living Wage Campaign and called on employers ‘to recognise their responsibility to end poverty pay’, and then later when it was adopted by the Ken Livingstone-run Greater London Authority in 2005.

And at hardly any point did the people in whose name the living wage is advocated have much of a say. Rather, a group of academics at the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University, in association with the professional chariteers at the Living Wage Foundation, calculated what they thought a family should have. According to one of the Living Wage Foundation’s policy documents, they use ‘data from Family Budget Unit’ and a variety of other stats, including ‘scientific evidence on physical needs and current norms such as the percentage of people in the population who presently own a particular item’. In short, a group of experts decides on the impoverished’s behalf what they should have.

No wonder the living wage’s lead academic was on the defensive in a recent interview: ‘Our research is based not on what experts think people need but on what members of the public tell us in great detail what a family needs to make ends meet.’ And no doubt there is some form of expert-led consultation with the public to lend the whole enterprise a veneer of popular legitimacy. But the telling words come right at the end of the academic’s defence – ‘what a family needs to make ends meet’.

‘Making ends meet’ is no aspiration at all. That politicians of all stripes are delighted to sanction it as such – in the name of reducing inequality, of bringing the top one per cent closer to the bottom 20 per cent – tells more about their own inability to imagine a wealthier society than it does about our needs and desires. We should want more, not be encouraged to accept less.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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