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Fair pay: A nuisance haunting Westminster

WHEN the big news on unemployment appeared last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put Scotland in its place.

What was the story on earnings growth, if any, in these parts? The ONS offered no numbers for us. None at all. The slogan Better Together (Sorry, Who?) sprang to mind.

Of itself, this was no big deal. All you had to comprehend was that across the entire, variegated economy of the United Kingdom joblessness and wages were falling simultaneously while a shiny economic recovery "took hold". If average weekly earnings figures seemed a touch dismal, that had to do with bonuses being a little disappointing. For those who look forward to bonuses, that is.

It amounted to an interesting, if partial, portrait of recovering capitalism. Had bonuses for a very few perked up by just a bit, we would all have been granted the illusion of being better off, mean or median. Instead, in place of a jobless recovery we were handed a wageless recovery. And Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, seemed in no mood to raise interest rates.

That would have been rubbing broken glass into the wound. In fact, the governor professed himself mystified, as an alumnus of Goldman Sachs might, over the phenomenon of an improving economy that confers no benefit on workers doing the work. In the face of ONS figures showing a 0.2% drop in wages (bonuses included) - the worst fall since 2009, when Alistair Darling was fixing your world - Carney didn't have lots to say.

He did say this: "Pay growth has been remarkably weak, even as unemployment has fallen rapidly." Amid the murmuring of 20-odd million people saying, "Really? You think?", the governor did not pursue the conundrum. Why would he?

It would only have involved challenging a few of the patent medicines of late capitalist economics. It would only have involved investigating the "remarkable" fact that at a time of rising labour demand, wages are being held down flagrantly, systematically, ostentatiously and brutally. It would only have involved the governor admitting that UK plc is engaged in a shakedown of the citizenry. And all of this while "national" productivity becomes a joke. On the morning after Carney's revelation a few voices were heard telling us to get used to it. This, they said, is the inevitable future. Already, fully one in five earn less than what some term a living wage. "In-work poverty", in the gruesome jargon, is endemic. The numbers which gave Carney pause demonstrate that work is no longer any path to economic security. As ever, your wages are someone else's bottom line. They care more about that than they care about you.

The governor's essay in puzzlement was a TV moment, nevertheless. More jobs; more people in work; more chased from "dependency" by Iain Duncan Smith and his cheerleaders: so where are the wages, where the prosperity, where the sense that a perpetually stable United Kingdom extends its secure embrace to every honest citizen? Strip out the hokum of bonuses and you find a population crushed by prices and gouging.

What would you do about that? A Tory like Duncan Smith would inaugurate a benefits sanctions regime of unsurpassed callousness and strive to make the statistical nuisances disappear. It's a way to juggle mere numbers. The Daily Mail would approve and blessings would flow. Earnings would continue to stagnate, nevertheless, and reality, the daily sort, would persist. Tricky, that.

The latest version of the Labour Party would instead "make work pay" while building lots of houses. Fair enough, of itself. But rent control would make better sense, politically and economically. It would not be without precedent. It would be a simple and efficient way to allow working people to keep, as all such parties would have it, "more of their hard-earned money".

It would infuriate the City, however. It would amount to rank interference with a market and that, for Labour, would never do. There is no worse fate for the modern party than to be accused of socialism. (And before a party stalwart makes the point, placing an "upper limit" on rent increases is not going to do it, not remotely, ever, for those who can never buy or hope for social housing.)

Labour has rendered itself a hostage. Each sad, aching peroration from Ed Miliband shows a man who knows his own Sisyphean reality as, each day, the boulder of pragmatism thunders over his instincts. What should a Labour Party leader say to the fact that, each week, working people across this UK are having their wages skimmed?

Taking the logic of the living wage to a conclusion would find no favour with those who really matter in Labour's invisible electoral college. Ensuring that the scam of "productivity" is no longer used to justify poverty wages would not go down well. For anything to alter, the people who make those arguments would have to be challenged. An hourly rate of £7.65 ("elsewhere", as they say in London) enforced by law and rated annually? Who would object to that?

This United Kingdom is a place in which a junior Foreign Office minister can chuck the job because an £89,000 wage and £173,000 in expenses don't cover family life, in an acceptable way, in central London. It turns out that Mark Simmonds, the victim of that benefits regime, has no sense of irony, or taste. But his brief, irrelevant career offers a little allegory for being together in his UK.

Capitalism's big collapse was a disaster for most and an opportunity for some. The earning figures are proof. It was - continues to be - corporate Britain's chance to drive down wages and keep them down, to impoverish permanently that portion of the workforce otherwise known as the electorate. But when enough of those are in part-time, no-time, "self-employed", and on-a-whim jobs, you can claim, triumphantly, to have solved unemployment. You could run an economy by paying people a decent wage. When workers prosper, employers and exchequers prosper: this is not disputed. If you think that outcome is desirable, you could insist on it. You could stop affecting amazement over declining earnings while the work rate seems to increase and, perhaps, engage with reality. People who vote might be entitled to no less.

Britain long since ceased to be that sort of country. Baffled governors of the Bank of England still hold sway, yet matter only if they utter this week's magical spell for property-bubble mortgages. The politicians of Westminster don't dispute the voodoo of markets, or regard the poverty of working people as their first priority. Even the idea of a living wage is treated as radical.

A society constructed on the basis of social obligations terrifies these people. "A fair day's pay for a fair day's work" is the nuisance they thought they escaped half-a-century ago. For them, an astounding record of collapsing earnings is no longer cause for apologies. It gets no more than a mystified shrug. This, today, is "just the way things are". Why?

Capitalism needs customers, though, and the citizens who wish to start again have to start somewhere. Here looks a good place.

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