The Living Wage: A policy with history

Ed Miliband’s much-publicised recent support for a living wage puts him at odds with a previous Labour leader – Ramsay MacDonald. IAN BULLOCK explains.Ed Miliband

Much is now heard about the living wage. Rightly so. An Observer leader on 11 November drew attention to the 1931 Living Wage Bill moved by James (or, as he was more often known at the time, Jimmy) Maxton.

The living wage (or living income) was a policy adopted by the Independent Labour Party in 1926. It was drawn up, largely on the initiative of the then-chair of the ILP, Clifford Allen, by HN Brailsford, J Hobson, A Creech Jones and EF Wise.

Brailsford was a well-known journalist and writer, at the time editor of the ILP’s weekly, New Leader, Hobson was famous for his economic ‘under-consumptionist’ theory, Creech a former senior civil servant and then national officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and Wise Second Secretary to Ministry of Food during the First World War.

The ILP hoped the policy would be adopted by the Labour Party but Ramsay MacDonald dismissed it out of hand as composed of ‘flashy futilities’. At the time Maxton moved the Living Wage Bill, MacDonald was prime minister in the minority Labour government. No Cabinet minister voted for it though some Labour whips and junior ministers did.

The ILP was already moving towards disaffiliating from the Labour Party, but none of the signatories of the Living Wage report followed Maxton in this and two of them, Brailsford and Wise, were among the most vociferous opponents of disaffiliation.

—-Romancing the Rev cover

Ian Bullock writes about the relationship between socialism and democracy. He is the author of Romancing the Revolution: The Myth of Soviet Democracy and the British Left, and co-author, with Logie Barrow, of Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1914.

A longer version of this article appeared in Chartist in July.

For more on the ILP’s history go to our History section.


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