Leave or Remain, We Must Unite to End Low Pay

By John McDonnell

Whatever I say or write on any subject elicits an inevitable response from both sides of the Brexit debate, both from ardent Leavers and equally dedicated Remainers – that there is nothing more important than the Brexit issue, and that whatever the issue I am addressing, things will necessarily get worse on the one hand if we leave, or on the other hand if we stay.

The vehemence of the language and demeanour of the commentary is a wonder to behold at times.

I fully expect and confidently predict a full broadside of abuse for the following comment – that I sometimes wish the same level of emotion, outrage and anger displayed over Brexit would be more regularly and consistently displayed at the suffering being meted out to so many of our children living in poverty, or our disabled fellow citizens and their carers.

During one discussion on the politics of Brexit, Leslie Laird, Labour’s astute shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, commented on the basis of the experience of Scottish politics, “Welcome to the world of constitutional politics.” It can be a world where everything is viewed through the prism of the country’s constitutional arrangements. Every political question, every aspect of life becomes dominated by its relationship to constitutional rather than class politics or any other category of politics. Gender, race, LGBT, disability, age, youth, environmental, you name it, every aspect of political discourse is related back to the constitutional settlement.

In Scotland it has become independence or not. Now in the UK it’s whether we are in or out of the EU, or what relationship we have to the existing institutional and constitutional settlement in Europe. Some politicians and commentators have used the expression that we do not have sufficient “bandwidth” to deal with anything other than Brexit. This sounds so hip and up to date in the language of the automation of the fourth industrial revolution – but it is such patent nonsense.

We have allowed our politics to be dominated by Brexit. There is nothing inevitable about that. There is no limit to our so-called political “bandwidth”. We are imposing or allowing to have imposed upon us this limitation of our political discourse and campaigning.

So I am making a break for freedom. I will continue to work to secure the best outcome I can in the development of our policy relating to Europe – but I want to also focus on mobilising our movement to tackle some of the pressing problems our people are encountering in their daily lives now, and to confront some of the blatant underlying causes of these problems.

Low pay is a scourge on our community and must be a priority for any socialist to address. The government boasts about falling unemployment and the number of jobs created in recent years. What the Tories fail to tell people is the scandalous level of low pay and its associated problem of high household debt.

Average weekly earnings are still below the pre-crash levels in 2008. When the Tories laughably boast of record levels of wage increases in recent months, remember that this is only a record compared to the low levels of pay rises they have inflicted upon workers throughout the last nine years of their harsh austerity programme.

The Tories have created an economy based on low pay, long hours, insecure work, with internationally low levels of productivity. Alongside the low pay is a widening gender gap where women are paid nearly 10% less than men, and in many companies up to 20% less.

Poverty is the stark result of low pay. So it is no coincidence that nearly two thirds of our children living in poverty are in households where someone is in work. The Tories have broken the link between securing work and lifting yourself and your family out of poverty. We now need a mass campaign to expose the appalling levels of low pay and demand action to end low pay and secure real living wages.

Just as I did to launch the Fast Food Campaign, I will be bringing together all those who are interested in participating in an End Low Pay Campaign.

Let me know if you are up for this and want to throw your weight behind it because we cannot stand by and tolerate any longer the low pay economy and poverty-based society the Tories have created.

This piece was first published by Labour Briefing, where John McDonnell writes a regular monthly column.