Boris’ tall tale: the living wage is a Tory idea

If Boris is right, why are none of the ten London boroughs which have adopted the London Living Wage run by Conservatives?

If Boris is right, why are none of the ten London boroughs which have adopted the London Living Wage run by Conservatives?

So Boris Johnson thinks the Living Wage is a “deeply Tory” idea, does he?

The Tory part-time Mayor used his lucrative Telegraph column on Monday to endorse the idea, saying that capitalism should “do a little bit more to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder”, and called on “free-market diehards” to embrace the pledge. Later he confirmed that the London Living Wage would rise to £9.15 per hour.

At the same time, the Mayor announced that the number of accredited companies paying London Living Wage has doubled over the past 12 months to exceed 400.

Well, no-one enjoys the zeal of the convert more than me.  But, please! The idea that the Tories incline naturally to putting a floor under low pay is – how would Boris put it? – piffle.

Back in the 1990s, I worked for Labour when we were campaigning against Tory low pay and for a minimum wage. This was a time when you could find adverts in job centres across the country for jobs which paid £1 or less an hour.

Our ground-breaking research found nearly 2.5 million people across Britain in low pay.  And when Labour used this to call for a national minimum wage, what did we hear from the Tory government? That it would destroy jobs and wreck the economy.

Well, we all know they got that wrong, but echoes of these views still linger.

As recently as 2012, Tory MP Andrea Leadsom called for businesses with three employees and fewer to be exempt from minimum wage (as well as maternity and paternity rights). In 2010, a number of Tory backbenchers (including, unsurprisingly, new UKIP MP Douglas Carswell) all backed legislation allowing employees to opt out of the minimum wage.

Back in 2011, Tory MP Dominic Raab called for the minimum wage to be suspended for 16-21 year olds. He was at it again at the start of the year, arguing that raising the minimum wage “wouldn’t help the poor”.

And no-one will easily forget the views of welfare minister Lord Freud on paying the minimum wage to the disabled.

Nevertheless, senior Tories – from the PM and Chancellor down – now embrace the idea of minimum wage.

But let’s not kid ourselves that it would have happened without the Labour movement campaigning for it, and the Labour party making it one of the first things it legislated on in government.

Fast forward nearly two decades and the need for a Living Wage has become an expression of austerity, and prolonged recession has ensnared a greater proportion of workers in poverty pay. And it is an idea which the Tories embrace, says our Mayor.

So why are none of the ten London boroughs which have adopted the London Living Wage, run by Conservatives? In fact, all are  Labour councils, apart from Tower Hamlets.

In fact, scrutiny of the Living Wage Foundation’s list of organisations paying the Living Wage shows that, across the country, there are only two councils signed up which aren’t run by Labour. And neither of them are Tory.

Now I think that many more Labour councils, in London and elsewhere, should be signing up to the Living Wage. As we are in Living Wage Week, I hope that we’ll hear some good news on this over the coming days.

But if Johnson is right, and the Living Wage is a Tory idea, then his councillors in the capital and beyond are showing him up.

However, I won’t be holding my breath to hear him issue a clarion call for Westminster, Wandsworth, Hillingdon and all the other London boroughs to do the right – and “the Tory” – thing.

Mike Katz is a Labour campaigner in North West London. Follow him on Twitter

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