The living wage debate comes to Cambridge


The living wage campaign in a local community action and local politics context

I took Puffles along to a full council meeting of Cambridge City Council, having submitted in advance a question to ask the council at that meeting. As well as being part of the rules, it enables executive councillors to put together detailed responses. I then took Puffles along to an event at Kings College Cambridge (round the corner from the Guildhall) about the living wage. I had no idea that over half the panel were followers of Puffles on Twitter. I guess that was (and still is) the view of many that turned up, thinking who that weird bloke with the cuddly toy was. Occupational hazard.

An update on community action activities in Cambridge

If you scroll down to item 7 in the minutes of the July full council here, you’ll notice that students from Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin University (the latter of which I’m a former postgrad student) turned up to put pressure on the council to reach out to students regarding volunteering in the city. To which I was delighted. I assumed that four months was a reasonable time-frame to ask for an update on what had happened since then. Hence at the start of the week (giving 4 days notice) I submitted the following question in the style of an MP.

“Regarding item 13/48/CNL of the Full Council meeting on 18 July, and the questions from the student bodies as well as myself, please could the executive councillor responsible provide an update of what discussions the council has had with student bodies regarding student volunteering in local communities, and with partner local authorities, community groups and other institutions regarding a community development strategy for the City of Cambridge.”

Cllr Sarah Brown who I’ve met on numerous occasions (and rate as a councillor very highly in general) gave a very detailed response. I’ve asked the council for a transcript that I can link to. The lesson here is that if you want to get detailed responses, ask open-ended questions (ideally with advance notice) without looking to trip people up – especially if the issue is a non-partisan one. If on the other hand you want to trip people up, do what Robert Jay QC did at the Leveson inquiry. (See my blogpost here).

To summarise Cllr Brown’s response, there have been follow-up meetings, but it’s unlikely that we’ll see a community development strategy of the sort I’m looking for given that the last refresh was earlier this year. Disappointing but not surprising on that last point – as Labour councillor Gail Marchant-Daisley tweeted here.

I followed up Cllr Brown’s response by thanking the various officials who have met both with myself and with other student and community groups. I then mentioned my proposed community action summit (See my blogpost here) on which there’s been interest from student and community groups alike – which I’m hoping will be scheduled in Cambridge University’s ‘Green Week’ in early 2014. Finally I mentioned the National Citizen Service in East Anglia (see here) and cited some of the issues I found out about when I attended the graduation ceremony for the 16-17 year olds that took part in Cambridgeshire. (See my blogpost here). My challenge to all of the councillors of Cambridge City Council was for some of them to step forward as champions for the young people that take part in NCS projects in Cambridge. I’m glad to say that Cllr Carina O’Reilly tweeted her interest soon after.

From the Council to Kings

Puffles and I left early to head off to Kings College for an event about the Living Wage Campaign (see here). Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Cambridge in the 2010 & also now for the 2015 election Daniel Zeichner stepped in to take Kate Green MP‘s place following the latter’s withdrawal through illness. The speakers, including Kayte Lawton of the IPPR, Heather Wakefield of Unison and Tom Chigbo, formerly president of Cambridge University’s Student Union, all gave powerful speeches. The event being a rally, there were no dissenting voices against the principle of employers paying low paid workers more. Debate was on the details.

Look and learn from Tom – a lesson to Cambridge students on campaigns

Tom gave probably the most powerful speech of the evening. Not least because his campaigning on the living wage took him to places that few other Cambridge University students would tread. His speech was the telling of his experiences of reaching out to, and listening to the very people campaigners want to help. Their target? The cleaners that clean the offices in Whitehall. The people that cleaned my desks for seven years. Living wage campaigners got up in the very early hours to be at the London bus stops at 5am to meet London’s nighttime army of cleaners. I remember feeling utterly soul-destroyed reading this article during my civil service days. It was the living wage campaign that led to this action. It’s made some difference, but not nearly enough as ministers look for false economies by putting pressure on outsourcing firms to charge less – putting further pressure on terms and conditions of frontline staff. One way or another, it comes back to bite the government as they have to deal with the symptoms of low pay in an expensive city.

Daniel Zeichner finds his voice

Daniel gave what I thought was one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard him make. Passionate about an issue he’s long campaigned on, and knowledgeable too – especially given the number of people he’s met that are on very low salaries. It’s no surprise therefore that one of the areas Labour in Cambridge has been able to force the issue in local government is on the living wage. The other thing I noticed was that there was no party-political persona to target – the issue is so great as to transcend individual politicians.

In the previous speeches I’ve seen Daniel make, they’ve often been very partisan and sometimes unnecessarily personal – particularly when (perhaps understandably) going after local MP Julian Huppert. In terms of non-partisan audiences, party-political mudslinging has limited impact – as this evening’s Question Time discussed. But when politicians are talking and listening both knowledgeably and passionately about the day-to-day issues that are affecting people locally where they live, they are on much stronger ground. Daniel demonstrated this clearly this evening. Yes, it was a friendly & like-minded audience, but he engaged much more effectively and genuinely with the sometimes tricky points put to him.

It wasn’t just Labour students in the audience

Cambridge Green Party students were also there too. Not only that, they are beginning to rebuild in Cambridge having had quite a lot of interest at the freshers’ fair. (They are having their first get-together – see here). Personally I think it’s a good thing that the Greens are rebuilding locally. I’ve blogged about Cambridge Greens first here, and then later when Green Party leader Natalie Bennett came to visit Cambridge here. My ongoing point for Cambridge Greens is that in standing paper candidates (they’ve not really been actively campaigning in the past two years), they’ve still pulled in over 2,000 votes across Cambridge on very low turnouts. Think what they could achieve if they got active again. It also means Cambridge Labour cannot be complacent about their left flank. 

The living wage is a feminist issue

The one thing I took away from suggestions about whether living wage or the minimum wage should be at different rates for different professions was how it could disproportionately impact on women. Heather Wakefield made the point very powerfully, comparing the work of security guards vs cleaners. One of my close relatives spent many years as a security guard in a north London lorry park before being made redundant unexpectedly. Also, during my sixth form college days (before the National Minimum Wage Act) when I started on £2.65 per hour at the local supermarket, I worked with people who were good friends at the time who left the supermarket to become cleaners and bedders at Cambridge University because the pay was slightly higher. All of them were women of my parents’ generation and also helped keep me in line as I took my first baby steps in the world of work. These were also people whose children went to the same schools that I went to. 

Taking action against injustices

One of the things that came out strongly in all of the speeches was the sense of injustice. Kayte and Priya Kothari of Save The Children (who was also there) gave much of the intellectual background of why things were wrong. Daniel, Tom and Heather brought the human experience to this – hence the compelling case by all of them. When it’s people that you currently or have lived, worked and grown up with who are dealing with injustices, that can often be the spark that gets people going. Even if it’s not you that’s been directly affected, there can still be a sense of ‘I want to take action because what is happening is not right’. It reminds me of over a decade ago and the march against the Iraq war when a million of us (myself included) protested against a government policy that would directly affect not us, but other people on the other side of the world. 

It was also something that Tim Farron MP mentioned as being the reason for him getting involved in politics on Question Time the same evening as these events. He said he got involved in politics because he saw injustices happening in his local community.

Campaigning against something is one thing, but what are the policy solutions?

I had a quick chat with Daniel after the event and said that I’d be blogging and would include a couple of public policy questions for him to consider. (Given that he was a headline speaker, I’ve also offered Daniel the right of reply to this blogpost). The offer also goes out to local councillors and other local political parties too regarding the living wage. My policy issues are:

Enforcement of the national minimum wage

Sections 31 and 32 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 created a number of offences. Yet when I was working in central government and going out and about to economically deprived communities across England, there was little knowledge that the Act, let alone the rates, of the minimum wage existed. People were being paid a third of their legal entitlements. Post-2015, what do you think your political party should do (if elected) to deal with this problem? What can you do within your political party at the moment?

Pay ratios

What scope is there to bring in pay ratios in the workplace? Should companies be forced to disclose pay ratios comparing highest to lowest paid? Should there be a maximum pay ratio? If so, what should that be and how could that be enforced? Note this Reuters article.

Outsourcing and the fragmentation of reporting chains

This was an issue raised at the Cambridge City Council full council meeting. While the council pays permanent staff the living wage, that does not apply to outsourced staff. At a county council level, this leaves care workers potentially vulnerable to even lower pay. What policy options do you think should be considered to ensure that employers – irrespective of sector, are prevented from outsourcing their responsibility for the services that they commission?

Housing and transport

Tom made a very powerful case about families not having enough time to spend with each other and in their communities. When I transferred from Cambridge to London in the civil service, I had to stop all my voluntary activities because of the demands both of my new job and also the commute until I moved to London. Commuting took 3 hours a day, every day out of my life. What do you think are suitable policy options to help people live closer to their place of work, thus helping free up time for people to spend with their families and communities? Bear in mind that one estate agent in Cambridge boasts on their website that they sell 30% of newbuild homes to overseas investors. What is your housing policy solution to this?

Food for thought.

Finally – Thank you to Cambridge Universities Labour Club, Cambridge University Living Wage Campaign and CUSU Women’s Campaign for putting on this evening’s event. I’d be interested to see a follow-up event where students that attended can debate their case with those that might be against a living wage. One criticism from a few non-political types was that they didn’t hear anyone making the case against a living wage.


2 thoughts on “The living wage debate comes to Cambridge

  1. “One criticism from a few non-political types was that they didn’t hear anyone making the case against a living wage.”

    That’s because you’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to publicly defend that position, particularly in Cambridge. And, as you acknowledge earlier, it was a rally! To use an analogy, you can hardly complain that a political party isn’t doing its job properly if it doesn’t invite its opponents to speak at meetings!

    I also wonder what these “non-political types” were doing coming to such an event.

  2. Quite a few detailed questions there – so I will deal with them one at a time as I get time – apologies, but life is pretty busy! On enforcemnent, you are absolutely right, and Mike Black who is a Minimum Wage Inspector and was in the audience at King’s pressed Labour ministers on this for many years. I also pressed it at Labour’s National Policy Forum in 2008, but again without success. The good news is that Ed Miliband understands the problem and has promised better enforcement, so there is now a real chance of progress. On pay ratios I think the work Will Hutton did a few years ago was significant and I think we should certainly be looking at much greater transparency, and yes, introducing maximum pay ratios of maybe 20:1, but we should recognise that enforcement won’t be easy as employers will use a range of avoidance devices – the definition of a bargaining unit for union recognition purposes for examples has been contentious and similar situations would occur. But we should still try!

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