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You can’t de-politicise the minimum wage

cashJulia Unwin’s article in Rupert Murdoch’s Times newspaper this week would be laughable if it was not also symptomatic of a wider problem. Julia is the Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust and this week she took to the pages of the national newspaper to chide the leader of the Labour party pronouncing that “Milliband should not meddle in the minimum wage”.

Julia is a career long quangocrat. Amongst the organisations she has adorned are: the Food Standards Agency: the National Consumer Council; the Housing Corporation and the Charity Commission. Julia Unwin CBE has never done a minimum wage job in her life and she has obviously grown weary of dealing with the people who ordinary people elect to represent them. As far as she is concerned quangocrats know best.

In saying that poiticians should not “meddle” with the minimum wage she, literally, does not know what she is talking about. Quangocrats like her did not invent the minimum wage. It was a political project fought for by trade union leaders like Rodney Bickerstaffe, the then leader of  NUPE (now part of Unison), who represented millions of low paidpublic sector workers.

First he had to battle his colleagues in the TUC. They were suspicious of a minimum wage believing that it would undermine free collective bargaining. Those battles were fought out on the the floor of Labour party conference and the TUC Congress. I know because I was there. Then Labour politicians had to take up the battle, until Tony Blair’s governement implemented the minimum wage in the face of fierce opposition from the Conservative party and business. So much for Miss Unwin’s idea that the Minimum Wage should be protected from the grubby business of politics. Without political campaigning there would be no minimum wage.

However it is not all Julia Unwin’s fault that she has such a powerful sense of her own importance. In the Blair years money was thrown at quangos, and think tanks. New Labour had a deep suspicion of Labour local authorities. Maybe this was because Hackney Labour Party, in its left wing prime, refused to shortlist the young Tony Blair as a council candidate. In any case New Labour poured money into the quango sector, often stripping powers from local authorities in the process.

This created a number of problems. First the Blair governement suffered from not listening to the people who knew most about local communities, their own Labour led authorities. Housing was just one area of public policy that suffered as a result. And in 2010 it was obvious that many voters did not realise what a Labour governement had done for them, because so many things were channelled through quangos rather than direct governement action or their Labour council. This period was the genesis of the over-mighty quangocrat untroubled by such notions as transparency and democratic accountability.

Nothing could be more political than the living standards of the poorest members of the community. Ed Miliband is quite right to talk about the minimum wage. My only problem is that he should be more ambitious. The careful “tripartite” approach, which Julia thinks is sacred, is not the point. It is for society to decide what it thinks is the minimum amount of money that people should live on and it is for the people that they elect to make this happen.

So Julia can give her advice. But for her to publicly admonish ordinary people’s representatives for talking about what ordinary people should be paid is fatuous. We need to start pushing back against the idea that intensely political issues like low pay can be de-politicised. In the end “to govern is to choose”. People elect their representatives to make those choices. The quangocrats are there to deliver for the people’s government, not the other way around.

One Comment

  1. Robert says:

    I will promise that in 2020 everyone will be getting £8 an hour that’s nearly 5.5 years away which means we can look forward to 25p pay rise and this lady is right the min wage rises do not come from leaders they come from the the people who determined pay rises the review board, Cameron got his fingers burned saying it should rise by a £1 to get voters to vote Tory,.

    Miliband should stay out of it because if next year they decide it should go up by ex amount with Miliband saying it should be £8 in 2020 he can be seen as telling them not to give out larger pay rises .

    Sorry Ms Abbot I do tend to agree with you on most things, but not on this labour set up the min wage review board to look and set the rises so it could not be associated with politicians and electioneering, which is what Miliband is doing now badly.

    I do not know what the hell to make of Miliband. I really do not.

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