By Mark Buckley
A resolute politician can set the political agenda, even when in opposition and this is exactly what is happening on the question of low pay in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn has been clear that he will end austerity and has repeatedly focused on the issue of low pay. Labour’s position is to raise the minimum wage to £10 per hour and the highly successful manifesto included a costed plan to scrap the pay cap in the public sector. Following Labour’s advance at this June’s election, and rising support since, it is increasingly possible that Corbyn will be the next prime Minister, and both workers and the Tories have taken note.
The Tories are in disarray on the issue of low pay, they are pretending to end their pay restraint policy and will pay a political price as their deception is exposed.
The Tory pay cap has meant repeated real terms cuts in pay for millions of public sector workers at a time when taxes have been cut for the highest earners and the Corporation Tax rate has been repeatedly cut.
The Tory claim that they are removing the pay cap is untrue. The pay awards they are proposing are still below the rate of inflation, so there will still be real pay cuts. In August the CPI rate of price increases accelerated to 2.9 per cent in from a year ago. The old RPIX measure (retail prices excluding mortgage interest rate payments) hit 3.9 per cent. The award is also only to selected workers and is not funded with new money, so that service bosses say that jobs may be cut.
Both the Tory efforts to pretend they are increasing wages and the political price they will pay as these false claims are exposed are a direct consequence of the positions of the Corbyn leadership. A Labour leader who was not committed to ending austerity would not have pushed the Tories into a corner. A Labour leadership anxious to appeal first to the Tory press would not have rubbished the Tory manoeuvres in the way that Corbyn, McDonnell and others have done.
This has an impact on the broad layers of trade union activists and through them the wider labour movement. It is noticeable that a series of small-scale industrial disputes had already broken out in various parts of the country. Now national unions have put in above-inflation wage demands, to begin to win back pay lost over several years. Others are threatening strike action over pensions, pay and conditions. From a low base, the level of union militancy could be set to take step higher.