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What Now for the National Minimum Wage?

13/05/2015 11:41 BST | Updated 13/05/2016 10:59 BST

If anything, it would be difficult to deny Ed Miliband's role in drawing the electorates attention to the huge disparities in income that exist in Britain today. Ed's offering on social justice was strong, with a higher national minimum wage one of Labour's key election pledges (although, disappointingly, it never made it onto the #EdStone). How though will the minimum wage fare under a Conservative majority government?

In comparison to the other major political parties, the Conservatives were all but mute on the minimum wage in the run-up to 7 May. It was mentioned indirectly in their election manifesto as a threshold for removing those earning the wage floor and working less than 30 hours per week from income tax liability. Unconvincing attempts were also made later on to match Labour's £8 per hour mark (remember David Cameron forgetting how much the living wage was when interviewed by a panel of young listeners live on Radio 1's Newsbeat?).

There are compelling reasons to suggest that a policy traditionally very far from the core of Conservative ideology may find its way into their plans for the next 5 years. Labour and SNP promises for the minimum wage to reach upwards of £8 per hour by 2020 can be met with very little effort. Both parties (unwittingly?) sold a fiction; following average increases over the last 10 years, the minimum wage is estimated to reach roughly £7.50 per hour by 2020. The minimum wage has the potential to become useful to the Conservatives in two ways.

If the (disputed) economic recovery holds, the 'big society' could see a comeback. With a greater focus on the power of civic society, the minimum wage could be promoted alongside campaigns for the living wage. Although not to be confused, fears have been raised that the living wage could be hijacked as a way of removing the state from the economy and income support. This would undoubtedly limit the importance of a legally mandated wage floor. Cameron may be ambitious and seek to capitalise upon middle income support and re-launch blue collar Conservatism. Committing to increase the minimum wage only fractionally would reassure such target groups that the Conservatives are a party of the heart not just of the head.

Perhaps the most interesting developments will be seen with regard to Scotland. Devolution and full fiscal autonomy are inevitable but in the meantime Nicola Sturgeon has her sights set on 'priority' areas. Along with business rates, employment and welfare, powers over setting the minimum wage will be sought. Would Scotland copy the Low Pay Commission? Would it establish a more radical alternative along neo-corporatist lines? Would coordination in terms of levels and scope with the former UK be rejected outright? The permutations are numerous. George Osborne's plans to forge ahead and develop the 'northern powerhouse' could see a similar scenario of differentiated minimum wages across the UK.

What can be expect from a 'renewed' Labour? It is almost certain that the next leader will align themselves far closer to the CBI. The consequence of this shift to the right is telling of how the minimum wage will be viewed over the next five years. Campaigns like the 'cost of living crisis' will not be repeated by the larger parties without a focus on the broader benefits of their policies to the economy writ large. The social justice case for a higher minimum wage will not be heard again alone. Rather the destabilising language of economics will be used to promote and obstruct a policy that will be relied upon by millions.