In the New Statesman earlier this week (reported on here, here and here, but no direct link available to the article at time of writing), Guy Opperman, the Conservative MP for Hexham in Northumberland, called for employers to pay their employees a Living Wage. This is significant in that he is the first Conservative MP to proactively call for employers to do this. David Cameron has previously called the Living Wage ‘an idea whose time has come’ and Boris Johnson is a big supporter, but it is not a subject that Conservative MPs regularly promote and only one Conservative council has become Living Wage employers, to the best of my knowledge.
We have also heard in recent weeks that the Conservatives may be attempting to position themselves as the ‘party of the low paid’ in the North. One could choose to see Guy Opperman’s announcement in this light, but we shouldn’t forget that he has ‘form’ in this area already. He was also the first Conservative MP to speak out against regional pay. At the time he said there was ‘no economic argument’ for regional pay and highlighted the importance of public sector pay in supporting and hopefully stimulating the region’s economy
“I am very concerned that regional pay would lead to a reduction in the pay packets of some public sector workers in the North East. I do not believe reducing public sector pay will help stimulate private economic growth.”
All of this is, therefore, very interesting for the North East. We have one of only two Conservative MPs in the North East arguing for a Living Wage, in a region with no Conservative controlled councils – but also a region with no public sector employers paying all of their staff the UK Living Wage of £7.45 per hour. So, as someone remarked to me on Wednesday, you could argue there is definitely room for a bit of competition for the votes of low paid workers in the North East.
Of course, if this is part of a Conservative plan to become the party of the low-paid, there are lots of other issues that Mr Opperman’s colleagues could address as well as pay. We know that low paid jobs are very often part-time and/or temporary and the recent attention on zero hours contracts highlights the insecurity of much low paid work that is one offer at present. Becoming a Living Wage employer doesn’t make a great deal of difference to employees if they’re only working a couple of hours a week – or none at all.
For now though, we should be grateful that MPs in the region are talking about this issue (Middlesbrough MP Andy Macdonald recently announced his desire to see Middlesbrough becoming a Living Wage town and, to be fair to him, we didn’t give that the coverage it perhaps deserved) and it is particularly heartening that a Conservative MP in the North East is offering the glimpse of a political consensus on improving the pay of our lowest paid workers.
You can – and should – follow Guy Opperman on Twitter – @guyoppermanmp