These notes aren’t really about the budget as a whole, so I’m sure I’m missing lots of important stuff about the changes to the benefits system, more an attempt to think through some of the implications of the new “living wage” for over-25s.
I think the language being used is important here. The term living wage hasn’t been chosen by accident: the real living wage (£9.15 an hour in London, £7.85 outside it) has been a key demand of some determined workers’ struggles recently, at a time when open struggles are rare, and the redefinition of the living wage as a government-sponsored minimum wage at a lower rate seems likely to make things harder for current and future living wage campaigns: how can you demand the living wage when you’re already being paid it?
The fate of the words “living wage” is also a useful example for those who hold up other terms, like a universal basic income or citizens’ income, as demands that would inherently cut against the logic of austerity: if either term became popular enough, the government could quite easily grant us something it would call a universal basic income, even if the reality was just a rebranding of universal credit.
The other important thing about the over-25 “living wage” is of course the over-25 bit of it. Taken together with the attack on housing benefit for under-21s, it seems like young people are to be forced into the same position as migrants: made too insecure to say no to any work, no matter how poorly-paid and unsafe, and then attacked for undercutting other workers by working for lower rates. Never mind people from other countries, it’s people from the 90s who’ll be (forced into) taking our jobs.
The minimum wage always had loopholes, but recent years have seen those holes growing wider and wider with the expansion of unpaid work through workfare, as well as workers earning the minimum wage working alongside “apprentices” doing the same unskilled work for £2.73 an hour. Now, at the same time as raising it, the tories have kicked another huge hole in the floor of the wage. And having driven the wedge of conditionality into the minimum/living wage, we can expect to see it pushed much further in the near future: how long before those on zero-hours contracts are branded skivers who need to increase their minimum guaranteed hours before they become hard-working enough to qualify for the living wage?
There’s a reason why capital’s always so keen to increase hierarchies within the working class: these divisions do have real effects. The idea of migrants taking jobs is not just a racist myth – someone living in terror of the UKBA and denied access to benefits will say yes to jobs that anyone who had any other options would refuse, and that does make it harder for those who would take those same jobs but want to insist on better wages and conditions before accepting them. Similarly, the sharpening of the age hierarchy is going to undermine solidarity: just as many low-paid London commuters are reluctant to support the struggles of Underground workers who they see as being much better off than them, under-25s are going to find it hard to care about the demands of over-25 workers who they see as already being privileged by getting higher wages for doing the same work. And from the other side, the question will be raised: why care about the under-25s if all they do is undermine other workers by accepting lower wages?
Just as saying “black and white unite and fight” doesn’t automatically make it happen, saying “early-twentysomething and late-twentysomething unite and fight” won’t be enough either. We can’t individually give up our over-25 privilege. The answer can only come through collective struggle: finding demands that undermine rather than reinforce these hierarchies, making sure our campaigns draw in – and reflect the needs of – as many people as possible, not just that sub-section of the workforce which is currently most organised and visible.
Finally, there’s one more thing to say about the raise in the minimum wage, something that might seem obvious but is worth saying out loud: it’s a raise in the minimum wage. Not for everyone, but for some. The difference between £6.50 and £7.20 may not seem like a big deal to someone who won’t be affected by it, but, together with the shift in the income tax threshold, it does make a difference. I know better than to expect them to ever act in my interests, and I understand any increase in my income will be eaten up by inflation, and I’m nowhere near qualified to comment on the effects of the changes to working tax credit and child benefit, but still: anyone aged 25 or over, with no children, working full-time in a minimum-wage or near-minimum-wage job is likely to be left better off as a result.
When talking about obvious scum like Osborne and Duncan-Smith, and especially when upset about the horrific human costs of their war on benefits, it’s easy to get carried away and start talking about them as evil villains who only ever fuck over the poor for the benefit of the rich and never do anything else, but that won’t fit with the lived experience of someone who’ll qualify for the new “living wage”, looking at the new budget and mainly noticing the pay rise. We can argue about the effects of inflation and all kinds of other things, but we can’t plausibly tell people who’re getting a desperately-needed pay rise that they’re not getting a pay rise. We’re not children (certainly, those of us who qualify for the living wage are by definition really quite a long way from being children): we should be able to cope with complexity enough to be able to acknowledge that the government will sometimes do some things that have some benefits for some poor people, and that they’re still straightforwardly our enemies, a bunch of heartless bastards who’re long overdue a one-way trip to the deepest depths of the fucking sea.
What a way to make a living.