Walmart, to many of the political left, represents some the worst excesses of the Anglo-American model of capitalism; huge palaces of consumerism that engage in corrupt practises and pay their workers very little. However, recently the supermarket giant changed direction by announcing their decision to increase wages for 500,000 of their employees to $9 an hour, $1.75 above the US minimum wage. In so doing Walmart threw down the gauntlet for other notoriously low paying organisations. This story has resonance and lessons for UK politics, but it isn't just the Walmart example that we can learn from.
The US introduced their minimum wage far earlier in the twentieth century than the UK did with a national statutory minimum wage being introduced in 1938, 60 years sooner than their neighbours across the Atlantic. In much the same way that this is often a surprising political fact to many British ears, Walmart's wage rises are a surprisingly large scale win for wage campaigners, a scale of success that hasn't yet been seen in the UK. The Ritzy cinema in Brixton has seen one of the highest profile living wage campaigns, a campaign that was in the end successful in bringing wages much nearer to the living wage and that forced a climb down over redundancies. It was a great campaign and one that was in the national spotlight, but in the UK this has not yet translated into action where a massive company introduced wage increases for half a million people.
The equivalent in the UK to Walmart could very well be Tesco's; a huge supermarket chain which has also has recently come under fire for its bullying tactics in dealing with food suppliers. It is, like Walmart, a company very much in the cross-hairs of anti-poverty campaigners, who call the pay of many Tesco staff (who are paid a cigarette paper's worth above minimum wage) 'poverty wages'. Although there are currently campaigns to raise Tesco's pay to the living wage, we have nothing on the size of the two year campaign which saw yesterday's decision by Walmart, but that doesn't mean that we can't soon.
It isn't just from economic campaigns that the UK can learn though; the burgeoning worldwide movement to change the obsessive economic measurement of growth to something more meaningful has taken root in some US states. States including Vermont, Colorado, Washington State and Hawaii have all adopted what is called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which is a subtler and more complex measure than GDP. GPI properly takes into account environmental impacts, inequality and wellbeing; Vermont's stark difference between GDP and GPI in recent years demonstrates just how this will be helpful in a true understanding of the economic picture. The 'beyond GDP movement' is picking up pace in the UK and it looks like once again there are lessons to be learned from our American cousins.
The citizen's income, the idea of a guaranteed basic income for all citizens has been in the news in the UK a fair bit recently due to the rising profile of the Green Party of England and Wales, who have pushed it as a key policy. It's a brilliantly utopian idea, but surprisingly a form of it has emerged in the US whilst it hasn't in the UK. The Alaskan Permanent Fund pays out a dividend, a guaranteed income amount which is effectively equivalent to a basic income, to all its citizens, a policy which has arguably contributed to the state's low rates of poverty and income inequality. Although the Alaskan Permanent Fund is fuelled by the state's huge natural resources, there are lessons to be learned for the UK. The idea of a citizen's income and a citizen's wealth fund has been linked by the Oxford academic Angela Cummine as a way of providing not only investment in the economy but also a possible means of providing a citizen's income. Although Alaska is an isolated case, many wealth funds around the world exist and are successful (look at Canada, the Netherlands and Australia). By pushing for a citizen's wealth fund, we are one step further along the road to a citizen's income.
These lessons are not perfect, but then again neither frankly are the two countries in question. The Walmart wage rise is a good start, but it won't tackle family poverty; wage laws alone can't do that. The important thing to understand though is that inspiration can come from the most unusual of places, and it seems now that the US can teach a few things to the left in the UK.