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The Breakthrough for the Living Wage Is Cause for Celebration, But the Fight Is Far From Over

02/11/2015 11:56 GMT | Updated 02/11/2016 09:12 GMT

A hundred and six years ago today, the troops were called into Tonypandy to break the heads and the hearts of the striking miners of the Rhondda. The colliers, my great grandfather among them, were protesting for a Living Wage. A century after their struggle, whatever Iain Duncan Smith would have us believe, their campaign is living still, and with a new urgency born out of the bankers' recession and the grassroots response to the inequality it revealed.

Today, the hugely influential Living Wage Foundation has published the new Living Wage rates for the UK and for London. For the first time the UK rate has risen above £8, with the London rate nearer to £10.

Those new benchmarks have been carefully calculated to reflect the costs of living and average earnings in London and the wider country. They represent a fair and decent wage, a rate that rewards hard work and allows a decent life to be lived. They also represent a fair and decent challenge to the Conservative government to justify the rate and the reality of the so-called 'national' living wage they announced last June.

At the time you might remember Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, punched the air like a superannuated football fan. I don't know if his delight was due to the Chancellor's conversion to the cause of a Living Wage or, more likely, at the crass party-politics of hi-jacking Labour language. Either way, his enthusiasm has surely waned as the rhetorical flourish of the budget statement gave way to the reality of tax credit cuts and the realisation that the new higher rate will not apply to young workers at all.

I wonder if the Secretary of State had been consulted with at all given his history of bad blood with the Chancellor, but he should have known to read the small print before he clenched his fists in victory. The truth is that the 'national' living wage is more properly described as a Higher Rate Minimum Wage for the over-25s. That's what the Low Pay Commission, established by Labour to set the Minimum Wage, has been calling it, and some less-shameless government ministers have been heard to use it too.

Labour is not opposed to this new, higher rate for the over-25s. We've argued for some years that Britain needs a pay rise and we welcome any moves by the government in that direction. However, there is little justification for asking two workers to do the same job, at different rates, depending on which side of 1 April, 1990, they were born. What is more, the Government has made no serious efforts to justify it. One minister, Matthew Hancock, did suggest it might be because young workers were 'less productive', but all the evidence says that is cobblers, so I can only assume he isn't serious.

This issue of the gap between the real living wage and the government's heavily spun higher rate is so important, especially for the young who will not benefit. Today's announcement will likely see a gap of almost £3 in London and £1 elsewhere between the real and the bogus rates, leaving a cost of living shortfall for every worker.

So I will keep my great grandfather's fight in my mind, as Labour continues to support the ongoing campaign for a proper living wage, and as we celebrate those employers who provide one. This last year there has been much to celebrate, such as the government's partial conversion to the cause and the breakthrough for the Living Wage in parts of the retail sector.

But the fight is far from over, our objective has not been reached. Many employers, earning big profits, continue to refuse to share fair rewards with their employees, and the smoke and mirrors of the government's phoney Living Wage, only makes it easier for them to hide.

Owen Smith is the shadow work and pensions secretary and Labour MP for Pontypridd