Manufactured outrage

May 11, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, New Labour | 4 Comments

You’ve got to feel a bit of sympathy for Labour’s online activists. Although they were already behind the other parties in terms of reach & organisation, many Labourites were doing quiet, conscientious campaigning until some motormouthed celebrity spouse singlehandedly turned the words ‘Labour blogger’ into something pejorative.

Now the skunk’s slunk off to his psychotherapy & left LabourList trying to shake off the stink, much of Labour’s online activism is being driven by John Prescott’s Go Fourth site. The people behind Go Fourth clearly understand online politics far better than Derek Draper did (though, frankly, so does my goldfish), and the strategy of launching single issue campaigns on social networking sites is a smart way of expanding their audience.

But if you’re going to base an online movement around single-issue campaigns, you have to choose your battles wisely, and it’s here where the netizens of Labourland may have a little growing up to do.

minimum wage copy

Back in February, Tory backbencher Christopher Chope introduced a 10 minute rule bill which would – among other things – allow companies to pay employees below the minimum wage if those employees consented. John Prescott seized on this as evidence that the Conservatives would tear up Labour’s record on worker rights and swiftly launched the website Wage Concern, which wants the bill defeated when it comes back for a second reading on Friday. To stress what’s at stake, the website carries a helpful banner reminding you how many days are left to ‘save’ the minimum wage from oblivion.

The trouble is, this banner and most the overheated rhetoric which accompanies it is a fabrication. As others have noted, the bill was doomed to failure long before Prescott summoned his cadre of keyboard-clunking comrades and it’s unlikely that even the Tory leadership will give it their official seal of approval. Rather than being on the verge of elimination, the minimum wage is set to increase, and no amount of dishonest doomsaying will prove otherwise.

So what about the substance of the bill? Well, I’m neither an economist nor an expert on industrial relations, so I’m not going to dive into a field where I’d quickly be exposed as a dilettante. All I will say is that I’ve personally benefited from the minimum wage, that now is the worst time to start having a race to the bottom for workers’ wages and that I’d vote against it if I were unfortunate enough to become an MP. That said, Chope does have a point when he explains that even a 15% decrease in a worker’s wages wouldn’t be a decrease in real terms, because they’d fall out of the tax bracket. He’s also right to point out that there are already around a million people working below the minimum wage in the ‘black economy’, and that those people are deprived of all the other rights & safeguards afforded to them in the ‘real economy’.

But what irritates me the most about this campaign is the way it chooses to savage the author, his supporters and his proposals, but completely ignores the bill’s saving grace. I’ll let the member for Christchurch take things from here:

The first group that would be helped would be refugees who have sought refuge in this country by reason of persecution and are waiting for the Home Office to determine their applications for asylum. Why should those people not have the right to take employment opportunities that have not been taken up by British citizens and thereby enjoy the dignity of having a job? Although it might cause some raised eyebrows among colleagues to hear this, I am pleased to report that the Trades Union Congress is of the same view.

Under the party of Labour, asylum seekers cannot work, leaving many destitute and dependent on hand-outs from churches & charities. For those of us who’ve cast a despairing glance over the state of our asylum system, Labour’s failure to rectify this is nothing short of shameful. Even if Mr Chope gets nothing else right in this bill, his proposal to empower the most powerless deserves to be saluted.

I understand, of course, that this fight is extremely useful for those doing the campaigning; the minimum wage is a consolation prize used to reassure disaffected supporters that Labour really is ‘on your side’ and by raising the specter of its abolition, they might bring a few more stray lambs back to the flock. I’ve no problem with supporters spending their energy campaigning against something which is already a lost cause, but by using such highly-strung language whilst conveniently ignoring a proposal which is actually more progressive than the government, it comes across as emotional manipulation. That might not be on the same level as personally smearing your opponents, but it’s still something we can do without.



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  1. Its very interesting that a Bill which seems to contain a lot of crap contains something which would improve the lives of thousands of people overnight.

    Asylum seekers have always served Labour as a scapegoat par excellence; foreign, other, desperate, poor, silent.

  2. Indeed, and it’s something I’ll have a hard time forgiving.

    I was obviously opposed to the idea of ditching the minimum wage, but it was irksome to see so many socialist bloggers (Tom Miller, Laurie Penny, assorted LabourHome & LabourList contributors, and more) vent their spleen at something which – for all its fatal flaws – would’ve at least helped a group of people Labour has stigmatised whilst in office. I suspect that for many it was a case of not doing the reading, but that’s not much on an excuse.

    Cheers for the comment.

  3. Rather late to this post but Christopher Chopes’ assertion that a 15% cut in wages wouldn’t mean the employee losing money is just wrong. If it was true it would mean that for that wage band the marginal rate of tax is 100% or over.

    It is true that the Working Tax Credit would make up a part of the lost income (around 36% of it in fact) but that means the state would be subsidising the business owner in paying poverty wages.

    • Cheers for the clarification, Andy; must admit that I hadn’t the chance to double-check Chopes’ sums on that argument. I rather like the idea taking the lowest paid out of paying income tax, but I’m obviously not going to agree to ditching the minimum wage so that can happen.

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