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Expenses row must not obscure Tory intentions on minimum wage

Posted on 13 May 2009 | 4:05pm

I’m not saying the expenses row is trivial. It is not. Some of the revelations
have been genuinely shocking. 

But there is something else going on in Westminster that requires a little
more attention than it is getting. Because it goes to the heart of the
difference between the main parties.

I don’t mean the difference between
Labour claiming for toilet seats, bathplugs and blue movies, while Tories go
for horseshit, moat-cleaning, swimming pools and helipads. No, I mean the
difference between people who support the minimum wage and people who want to
get rid of it.

It took a century’s worth of campaigning to get the minimum
wage on the statute book and I am very proud that it was the Labour government
and Prime Minister I worked for that did it.

And never forget – every single Tory MP voted against it.

So what, you
say? It’s history. Nobody will ever reverse it now.

Oh yeah? Well on Friday a Tory Private Member’s Bill comes back to the House
of Commons. With a nod to Orwell, the Bill, called ‘Employment Opportunities,’
promises to introduce ‘more freedom, flexibility and opportunity for those
seeking employment in the public and private sectors.’

In a nutshell, the bill wants scrap the National Minimum Wage.

The 11 Tories behind it –
including Christopher Chope (brought in the Poll Tax) Peter Bone (who once
boasted of paying his staff 87p an hour) even use the UN Declaration of Human
Rights as a defence. No really!

Chope said when the Bill had its first reading: “Everyone
has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable
conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”Hear hear. So why
are you so opposed to the minimum wage?

The bill also requires all public sector organisations to advertise job
vacancies externally, so that ‘those outside the magic circle would have the
freedom to compete for jobs on an equal basis.’ Again, I can see some merit in
that.

The fact that 9 of those 11 Tory MPs sponsoring the bill employ their own
wives as secretaries was doubtless the result of rigorous employment practices
which went well beyond any magic or marriage circle.

The National Minimum Wage is a great Labour  achievement. Every year it’s increased, it benefits more
than a million people – two thirds of them women.

Never ever forget, nor let those women and their families forget, how hard the
Tories fought to stop it happening. ‘Nice’ Michael Howard, with his legendary
commitment to the unemployed and the low paid, said with all the passion he
could muster that it would throw two million on the dole. A Big Lie. To try to
stop a big step forward for Britain.

So where does David Cameron stand on this? As with so much else, how are we
supposed to know?

When Daniel Hannan described the NHS as a ‘sixty year
mistake,’ Dave kept quiet. So will he now come out and denounce these right
wing nut jobs? Or perhaps this is what he means by the age of austerity.

It is true that private members’ bills rarely become law. But to all those
toying with the idea that it is ‘time for a change,’ or those who are just
turned off by politics and so want to kick the government, just remember what
it leads to – a House full of Chopes and Bones and other chumps and boneheads
who never have been and never will be primarily motivated by the people at the
struggling end of the economic ladder.

That’s why I’m glad to see the shopworkers
union Usdaw, UNISON and Go Fourth leading the charge to kill this bill on
Friday with their Wage Concern campaign.

Please sign their petition at www.wageconcern.com.

And however hacked off with politics, politicians, the government,
Labour, your MP you may be, think very carefully about an alternative that
wants to dump such an important and progressive piece of legislation.

  • Nicole Murphy

    Spot on!

    In fact I think we need a fair and substantial increase in the minimum wage. Life is still a struggle for people who actually are on the minimum wage.
    I think all future MP’s should have experienced financial struggles themselves!
    Instead, you either have to be rich or union sponsored!

  • Viv

    Well said! The minimum wage is one of Labour’s finest achievements – millions paid more overnight, many of them women – any opportunity to highlight that and the fact the tories voted against it must be seized.

  • David Fagan

    You are absolutely right that we must remind voters of the Tories’ past…because (given the lack of any actual policy committments) it is the best indication of how they will act if (please note Labour supporters, this is still an ‘if’) they get back into power.

    We only have to look at the rantings of the Tory PPC for Coatbridge and Chryston http://tr.im/lfes to see that good old fashioned, ‘no such thing as society’ Thatcherism is alive and well in the modern Tory party.

  • dudeman

    Dear god, Campbell, you absolute spin merchant. Read what Chope ACTUALLY says, READ the bill. I disagree with it but its pretty clear that Cameron doesn’t support this or he would’ve said so. And more importantly, an opt-out of the minimum wage in certain specially defined circumstances is very different from a complete abolition.

    Stop spreading utter s**t for once in your life and please look at the truth. You are right to oppose the bill, but for god’s sake oppose what the bill actually does, which is to opt-out of the minimum wage in certain circumstances, rather than campaign against what the bill actually doesn’t do, which is scrapping the minimum wage completely. The Tories have realised they were wrong on the minimum wage, which is why they aren’t scrapping it. They changed their mind on the minimum wage just as Labour changed their mind on privatisation. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few dinosaurs in Labour who don’t still want nationalisation, and it is the same here with the Tories. You’re (presumably) intelligent enough to recognise this.

    No wonder people don’t believe in politics when people distort the truth on a daily basis.

  • Tania Ziegler

    Excellent article. The minimum wage is one of the many things that makes me proud to be a Labour Party member.

  • Clare Jenkins

    Thanks – Back to reality

  • MIKEY

    ????????????????????????

  • AC

    Do not be alarmed by Mikey’s interrogation. It has nothing to do with the minimum wage. It is a relative asking if I can get him a ticket for Wembley. I know

  • Alan Marsh

    The Tories deny they have any hostile intent towards the minimum wage – with about as much conviction as they used to say it would cost millions of jobs. they have always hated it, always will, and defending it is not just about the past but the future if they were to get in

  • Matt

    @dudeman

    Well I’ve just read Hansard and I see no detail about the specific exceptions to the minimum wage you mention. Evidently Chope did not think they were significant enough to talk about. He does however come out with this gem which I think sums up the tone of his proposal nicely:

    “It is ironic that the only people without the freedom to take a pay cut are those on or just above the minimum wage. How can that be fair?”

  • botogol

    oh dear, alastair, but no.

    a minimum wage feels intuitively like a nice idea, but study after study has shown that minimum wage legislation actually hurts the people it is supposed to benefit.

    If it is illegal for people to take jobs for less than £5.80 an hour, then some people become unable to work

    here’s some economics..
    http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/MinimumWages.html

  • Anne

    A bit of history to accompany AC’s timely reminder about the Tories: Chope used to lead Wandsworth Council. He was the Council leader who started the ‘Get Wandsworth out of the Inner London Education Authority’; a move completed by Thatcher in 1990 when she finally abolished it.

  • Alan Quinn

    I will be printing info on this bill and giving it to everyone who moans at my party so they can have a reality check.
    Not so long ago John Maples was urging that the recession should be allowed to run its course and as usual “Dave” is silent on this.
    And finally………….no mention of that Burnley win??!!!

  • Alina Palimaru

    The Tories’ position on the minimum wage is natural for conservatives, as far as I know. Also, just like with so many other positions, they are being selective in terms of the assumptions they want to make for their economic model. The effects of the minimum wage on the employment market depend largely on the magnitude of the demand for and supply of jobs in any particular sector (the technical term is ‘elasiticity’ and it essentially refers to the responsiveness of the market actors to conditions like the minimum wage). The Tories, as is their practice, make the assumption that all the employment sectors display the same demand/supply parameters that, when combined with the requirement for the minimum wage, would generate unemployment.

    Clearly, this assumption is absurd and it is only intended to deceive by playing the fear card. The British economy is comprised of a wide range of industries and employment sectors, each with its own attributes. But the minimum wage is intended to help people in the low-end markets, where most likely there is a willingness to work for any wage available (demand is inelastic) and supply is likely abundant (and elastic). In a chart, the demand and supply will show you that the effects on unemployment are minimal. As is the case with so many policies, there are always trade-offs. However, this is an environment where abuse by employers is rife, so the minimum wage would protect employees from third world labour conditions.

    I read Mr. Chope’s argument for his bill and it is very obvious that he seeks to protect the interests of employers. I was reduced to laughter when I saw his rationale for eliminating the minimum wage or making it optional in certain sectors: “Our Government make it illegal for an employer and an employee freely to negotiate the level of remuneration if it is less than £5.73 an hour for an adult … I am talking about arrangements for freely consenting adults.” This claim is not only ridiculous, but also dangerous! First, it would open the door for employers to set their level of remuneration below the minimum wage, even when market conditions are favourable for that sector and the employer can afford to pay the minimum wage, if not well above it. Second, the assumption of ‘consent’ should probably be translated into real terms, i.e. ‘power’. This is not a negotiation between a top-class IT expert and an employer, but between vulnerable individuals with poor skill sets and other social issues that prevent them from moving up the employment ladder. It is inevitable that employers will assert themselves in the so-called negotiation and rather impose an unfair wage.

    All in all, this bill exposes the Tories for who they really are: the party of privilege and affluence.

  • Zak

    I agree, the NMW is one of New Labour’s finest pieces of legislation and achievements. I commend you for highlighting this, as I worry it has become lost in political history.

    However, after construing the Bill, it does not state that the NMW will be “scrapped”. The Bill is ambiguous (as the majority of them are), but please furnish us with your thoughts on why you believe Section 2 states this?

  • gary Enefer

    Hear,hear AC

    It is a good time to get back to promoting core Labour values and it’s record on Education and massive investment in the NHS. Of course the Minimum wage too and protection at work – Dignity at work Act 1999?

    After the sumer recess – which I am sure GB and all MP’s are looking forward too,hopefully there wil be a period of opportunity, including the Conference season for GB to concentrate on Politics and Policy and ‘ go for David Cameron.

  • dudeman

    “Before anybody accuses me of wanting to impose poverty wages, let me emphasise that I am talking about arrangements for freely consenting adults. The Government regard an income of £11,918 per year as much in excess of an employee’s personal needs. That is why a single person on that salary is required to pay no less than £1,887 in tax and national insurance, thereby effectively reducing their take-home pay to £4.82 an hour instead of the £5.73 that it is nominally.

    Why should it be illegal for someone voluntarily to accept pay of £4.82 an hour? After all, that is all that is left in their pocket if they are paid the minimum wage of £5.73. Giving people the freedom to opt out of the minimum wage would help not only those who are out of work but those in the hard-pressed retail and hospitality sectors where businesses are going down like ninepins. How many such small businesses could be saved if those working in them had the freedom, in conjunction with their employers, to agree to reduce their wages?”

    Just an example of what Chope *actually* said in Hansard which pretty much negatives most of AC’s article. I still disagree with Chope, but let’s be clear about what we are against – we are against an opt-out for freely consenting adults, not a wholesale abolition.

  • DeeB

    this is the moment i saw through the mr nice guy piece: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/mar/06/eu.politics

  • Peter Farley

    As with most Conservative policies this one is about flexibility, freedom of choice, the stimulation of economic activity, creation of wealth and an acknowledgement that the country’s economic fortunes will always rest with the private sector not the state. Unlike our government of the past 12 years which has proven that its reversion to the Stalinist statist controls and employment policies beloved by its forebears has left the economy in the usual state of carnage that has marked every other end to its terms of office. Time to bring back the people who can release the economy from its shackles – after, of course, clearing up the horrendous mess that is being left behind.

  • Working Class Tory

    I’m a hard-right Conservative, but you’ve got this right. I don’t know much about it, but scrapping the minimum wage is fairly indefensible.

  • Jonathan

    Part of the function of the law is to protect the weak from the strong and a law that protects employees in low-paid jobs from exploitation seems like a fair law to me.

    But aren’t you setting up a bit of an Aunt Sally here? The Bill to abolish it is a Private Member’s Bill. It has no chance of becoming law. It does not represent Conservative Party policy.

    I have a suspicion (which I am sure is terribly unworthy) that you and Mr Prescott are trying to stage a diversion here. The real issue is why Mr Brown splurged on this country’s credit card in the good times and is now unable to pay it off.

  • VHarding

    Scary stuff. Alastair, can’t you use your influence to get this stuff in the press? It is so important that people are aware of the devastating consequences of letting the Tories back in. Davey C may be baby-faced and spouting goodwill, but this blog proves that his party is still packed to the rafters with moat-cleaning, helicopter-owning, right wing old stodgers who have no place in a representative democracy.