Cllr Matt Hartley is Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group in the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich.
Fifty years on from his passing, the words of Winston Churchill are yet again gracing our national discourse. We all have our favourites, but here is one that deserves more of an airing: “It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions.”
These words, uttered as President of the Board of Trade in a speech in the Commons during 1909, should be seized upon by Conservatives everywhere as the nucleus of a strong and vocal commitment to the Living Wage.
When employers pay the Living Wage – currently calculated as £7.85 or £9.15 in the capital – everybody wins. It’s good for employees and their families, good for the employer (who gains a more financially secure, more productive workforce) and good for the economy, helping us bring down the welfare bill and ultimately, tackle the deficit. This last argument is rarely made strongly enough: large parts of the welfare bill are in fact nothing more than an enormous state subsidy for Churchill’s ‘national evil’ of low pay, and should be seen as such.
In Greenwich, Conservative councillors recently secured a Living Wage Incentive Scheme to offer a one-off cut in Business Rates for up to 100 employers who commit to paying the London Living Wage. The scheme – which I proposed at January’s council meeting and the council’s Labour administration hastily adopted – is modelled on an innovative idea from Brent council, using powers granted by Section 69 of the Localism Act to offer localised Business Rate discounts. This is a terrific example of local authorities using the Conservative-led government’s localism agenda to deliver real and innovative change.
We’ve done this in opposition – with myself and other Conservative councillors forcing Labour-run Greenwich to match its warm words on low pay with deeds by adopting our proposal, and through a tax cut to boot. I am proud to have played a part in bringing this scheme to Greenwich, from which thousands of low-paid employees will benefit. At a recent meeting with the excellent Living Wage Foundation, I was delighted to hear that employers in the borough have already contacted them to sign up as a result of the scheme.
The reaction of the local Labour Party has been informative. After using their taxpayer-funded weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time (thankfully, on the cusp of its demise as a result of Eric Pickles’ drive against town hall propaganda) to try to pass the scheme off as their own, the Labour leadership struck a deal with us to secure cross-party support for an amended motion after our proposal had hurriedly been adopted as council policy. In the council debate that followed, many of the more reasonable Labour councillors shifted uncomfortably in their seats as their colleagues lined up to express the usual synthetic outrage that a Conservative should dare to focus his efforts on the problem of low pay.
And yet it is only the Conservative Party that has ever done anything to truly improve the fortunes of the lowest paid in our society – not least through introducing the right to buy, taking on the leftist educational establishment and increasing the personal allowance, to name but a few. There is, of course, one notable exception – the National Minimum Wage – which the Conservative Party was wrong to oppose the 1990s, and has been absolutely right to champion in the years since. Our stance on the wrong side of history over the National Minimum Wage at the time (still used against us by our opponents) should serve as a stark warning in the Living Wage debate.
Strong support from Conservative politicians at all levels for the Living Wage should be seen as a natural follow-up to this Conservative-led government’s admirable agenda to tackle in-work poverty, through welfare reform, the raising of the personal allowance and our commitment that he next Conservative government will lift all of those earning the minimum wage out of income tax altogether. The contrast with the last Labour Government – which not only crashed the economy, bringing on the biggest squeeze on household incomes in a generation, but also hit the lowest paid directly through the abolition of the 10p tax band – could not be clearer.
Every move that this Conservative-led government has made to improve the financial security of those on low pay has of course been opposed by Ed Miliband’s Labour Party – and we now have a chance to show that it is only low-tax Conservative agenda based on individual, as well as social, responsibility that can really make a difference on this issue.
We cannot afford to cede the Living Wage to Labour politicians who have no answer to the problem of low pay but more spending, more borrowing and more debt for future generations.
We have some way to go – but with, the Mayor of London’s long-standing and enthusiastic championing of the movement, the Prime Minister’s repeated call on businesses to adopt the Living Wage where they can, and Conservative MPs such as Chris White and Guy Opperman leading the charge in Parliament, we have begun to stake our ground in this crucial debate.
I hope that more Conservatives at all levels of government – including those running Conservative councils – will seize this opportunity to live up to some of the wisest of Winston Churchill’s words.