Ahead of the start of the Green Party conference on Friday leader Natalie Bennett has called for the minimum wage to be raised to £10 by 2020. Further plans unveiled in a new manifesto include immediately raising the minimum wage to the current calculated ‘living wage’ of £7.65 an hour, the removal of different minimum wage levels between youths and adults and a ‘wealth tax’ of 1-2% on those with over £3m in assets. Speaking to the BBC News channel Bennett argued that the proposals reflected a desire to give people a “decent return on their labour”. Although the Greens are the first to explicitly demand a £10 minimum wage numerous MP’s have lent support to equating the minimum wage with the living wage. Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for South Shields, recently petitioned her local council to adopt a living wage whilst in January Chancellor George Osborne stated that he wanted to see an increase in the minimum wage above the level of inflation (although the figure he quoted was £7 p.h.).
This new Green Party manifesto is evidently an attempt to outflank Labour on the left of the political spectrum ahead of the 2015 general election, with Bennett declaring that with Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives becoming increasingly homogenous the Greens were “not offering people business as usual”. The move is almost identical to the ‘UKIP story’; a fringe single-issue party that formulates policy on a wider range of issues to capitalize on popular disillusionment with the 3 main parties. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Greens can replicate the whirlwind success of UKIP and mount a serious challenge on Labour as the party of the left, just as UKIP is forcing the Tories to forcefully assert themselves as the true party of the right. The Greens currently have 1 MP and 3 MEP’s to UKIP’s 24 MEP’s, so they certainly start from behind. However, the story of a Green party emerging to become a notable left-wing force is not without precedent; such success stories include Die Grunen in Germany and the Green Environmental Party in Sweden.
Alongside some much-needed diversification of the political spectrum in the UK, this manifesto should help fuel the debate on minimum wage reform. Compared to our neighbours across the Atlantic, the discourse here seems rather tepid. Yesterday 30 people were arrested in Detroit in a minimum wage protest outside a McDonalds, whilst a nationwide walkout is being planned by the nation’s 4 million fast food workers. Stop right there; this isn’t a completely baseless comparison. Figures recently complied by the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, showed that if by some aberration the UK became a US state it would rank 50th out of 51 states in terms of GDP per capita. So, minimum wage workers here can take a cue from their American brethren if they so wish.
Debates over minimum wages rarely conform to an emotionless economic cost-benefit analysis, and the response to the Green’s declaration will evidence just how much support there is for wage reform. To be sure, action is required. As the forces of globalization continue their unstoppable march onward we are sure to see increasing pressure for equalization of low-skill wage rates with those in developing nations. The point at which we seek to halt that process will have substantial long term implications for our economy. The Greens, for one, seem to have staked out a position early in the game.