Fight for what we need

How should the Socialist Alliance determine the level of the minimum wage it proposes? Not by meekly tailing the 'European decency level', argues Tom May

Labour power is treated as a commodity in capitalist society. On average it is bought and sold at its value - an average arrived at by the cost of producing and reproducing the commodity under historically determined conditions.

Therefore with this in mind we in the Socialist Alliance should approach the question of what the minimum income, and thus the minimum wage, ought to be on the basis of what is necessary for simple labour to reproduce itself at the cultural and physical level appropriate to current social conditions. The demands we formulate on this basis are intended not only to further the interests of individual workers and their families, but are actually in the vital interest of society as a whole.

The table below represents a breakdown of the minimum expenditure necessary to maintain a working class family with two children. It was first published in the Weekly Worker in January 1999. Shortly afterwards our findings were broadly confirmed in the publication of two separate university surveys. The table assumes the existing availability of social services, grants for education, death benefits and other forms of income that are provided by the state or quasi-state bodies. It also takes into account current rates of taxation. Of course if any of these things change - for example, if benefits were to be cut, or cheap public transport were to be introduced - then the demands would have to change too. The distribution of expenditure does not exactly replicate the weightings given by the Department of Employment, and this is deliberate.

A family of two children and two parents is taken as our model for good reason - we want to show what is necessary for the reproduction of labour power at the level of statistics. Obviously the nuclear family is not universal. There are single-parent families and many other arrangements. And nor should it be forgotten that grandparents, friends and the population in general all contribute to the maintenance of the people around them and the reproductive process itself. This primarily involves people of the same class.

It also has to be noted that there are changes in the relative prices of commodities over the course of time. In particular the cost has fallen for manufactured goods and certain services over the last two years: e.g. certain electrical appliances and telecommunication are noticeable examples. On the other hand there have been rises in prices in other areas. This has left the rate of inflation at between two and four percent. The net effect of this is to lower the living standards of the poorer section of the working class whilst relatively improving it for the better off section the class. This having been said, the overall effect of the changes is to roughly cancel each other out, leaving a figure of just over £300 as a necessary minimum income.

Long periods of below-subsistence income produce people who are totally marginalised from society. Sections turn to crime or become dysfunctional in other ways. Not only that; the poor have worse health and a shorter life expectancy. A child born into poverty will frequently have a lower than average birth weight, and its development can be held back in many ways. There also appears to be a relationship between poverty in childhood and the rate of, for example, heart disease and a whole variety of other ailments in later life. Other factors are the housing conditions and the education attainment of the parents, in particular those of the mother.

To what extent any given individual is affected by such conditions varies according to chance, but chance events are themselves greatly influenced by the prevailing circumstances. The cultural and education achievement an individual attains is mainly determined by the social interaction of the child with its family and its peer group.

Cultural reproduction is not so much determined by the marginal costs of schooling or even university attendance, but the total level of family labour that goes into the raising of the child. Computers, videos, televisions, etc are today clearly necessities, affecting the outcome of the child's eventual development. That is why their cost must be included in what is necessary for workers to reproduce themselves.

What is obvious is that it is not only the immediate income level of the family that must be taken into account, but the accumulated effect of the lifetime level of income, and that of previous generations. A child's development will depend on the quality of the care and attention it receives. For this reason the question of the length of the working week is a vital one, as is the entitlement to maternity and paternity leave.

If the government and the bourgeoisie claims that they cannot meet the demand for £300 a week minimum, then it would merely show once more the need to get rid of the system of capital. However, for us the question is not what capital can afford, but what workers need.

Minimum weekly expenditure required in 2001 for the maintenance and reproduction of a working class family of two adults and two children:

Food1 £80
Alcohol and tobacco2 £30
Housing3 £100
Fuel and light4 £35
Household goods £50
Household services £45
Personal goods/services5 £40
Clothing and footwear £50
Transport6 £60
Leisure and holidays £70
Miscellaneous7 £50
TOTAL £610


(1) Of course it is always possible to live more cheaply (or more expensively), but the figure given here presupposes that some meals are taken out (staff canteens and occasional curries or pizzas); that the family shops at big supermarkets (and therefore has a car); and that, because of constraints of time, they do not necessarily choose the cheapest items or those which take a great deal of preparation. It is worth noting that it is impossible for us all to choose to take from the bargain bin or buy the cheapest cuts of meat - they would no longer be the cheapest if we did.

(2) One problem with the costing of alcohol and tobacco consumption is the problem of comparing the south-east of England with the rest of Britain. If a family in the south-east has a car, taxation on alcohol and tobacco is purely voluntary (France is so near). Also, the poor tend to smoke and drink more than the more prosperous sections of the working class.

(3) This is the most varied of all expenditure. To live in the style of a well-off working class family, ideally you would need grandparents, parents, or parents-in-law who bought a house in the home counties in the 1930s (or even the 1950s), and who have died without leaving too many other children. For the purposes of this table, the figure of £100 has been taken as representing a £50,000 house on a 25-year mortgage, with the householders being capable of doing most of the minor repairs, but paying insurance, council tax, etc. This is of course well below the cost of someone without any capital, trying to get suitable accommodation in the south-east of England, but is not necessary unreasonable for the UK as a whole.

(4) Fuel and light have both decreased in price over the last eight years. However, it has to be taken into account that a family with children will incur relatively higher expenditure on these items than the population as a whole.

(5) This figure refers to such items as toothbrushes, shaving equipment, soap, hygiene materials, etc. It also includes library charges, educational charges and expenses, books, membership dues, etc.

(6) This figure assumes a £5,000 car, depreciated over 10 years, used for work, holidays, etc (200 miles per week), with major repairs carried out at a garage. It includes taxation and insurance. No parking or garage facilities are assumed. Up to £20 per week for auxiliary transport might have to be added for the expense of both partners travelling to work, taking children to school, etc, through the use of a second vehicle.

(7) All other expenses here include contents insurance, life insurance, newspapers, stationery, telephone bills, postal expenses, and the cost of credit, and 101 other items which arise regularly or occasionally (eg, dental bills, prescription charges, and veterinary bills).