Monday, March 9, 2009

Living Wage and Local Government

Glasgow's leader Steven Purcell has announced a £7 per hour minimum wage for employees at Scotland's largest local authority. The move will benefit thousands of workers. It seems that the announcement is to do with Labour Party internal politics and trying to set up a future Scottish Labour leadership challenge to the anonymous Iain Gray. But that aside, genuine help for workers should not be scoffed at, even if it comes from New Labour. It's close (but not quite the same) to the demands of the left and the unions for a living wage in the public sector. Unfortunately, Labour's behaviour centrally is to annihilate the public sector over the next few years. Labour's trying to face both ways has brought us the bizarre spectacle of thousands of civil servants being laid off, followed by thousands of new positions being created and advertised for simultaneously. At Cardiff Central Train Station not long ago the DWP had advertising hoardings to recruit staff who could work late nights to process welfare claims. The same DWP has been cutting staff back including job centre staff all year!

The most striking thing about the Glasgow pay rise is the economics of it. Everyone must be wondering, how can Glasgow afford such a rise? I do not know enough about Scottish politics to say why, but I can speculate. The SNP has undertaken a mature relationship with local government, making a concordat with them and working to freeze the Council Tax. I'm not sure whether this has freed up extra resources for local authorities, but it may have had an impact.

One thing about local government is that it is often accused of being conservative. I think this is a mis-conception based on the south-east of England. Local governments have been responsible for many progressive initiatives and courageous stands. Think of Woking Borough's pioneering of renewable energy, Gwynedd's local housing policy and the socialist councillors in Liverpool who resisted Thatcher's cuts. Indeed, it was Thatcher who cut down local governments who were resisting her centralised agenda. They were refusing to do her bidding and massacre local services, and that's why we have the situation we're in today where local government has been depoliticised and weakened. I think that an opposite strategy might be needed, and that the Wales of the future should give local authorities freedom but also make them more democratically accountable. Eventually I believe that each local authority should be rebranded and reorganised as a kind of co-operative/community organisation where everyone has a stake, rather than being seen as an old man's club. Then we might see some more radical policies originating in our communities.

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