LABOUR IN BRIGHTON: Harman finds way out of minimum wage trap

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The Independent Online
The threat of a damaging conference split over a national minimum wage evaporated when constituency delegates agreed not to push a minimum figure of pounds 4.15 an hour to a vote, writes Stephen Goodwin.

Setting the rate would be the task of a low pay commission, in consultation with trade unions and employers, following a Labour election victory.

Welcoming the decision of Edinburgh Central not to press the figure, Harriet Harman, Labour's employment spokeswoman, said the minimum wage had moved on from being a symbol to become practical policy. "There was a clear spirit of unity and agreement that what we have done is toughen up our policy ready for government," she said.

The party is to set up a preparatory group to study wage floors in other countries, consult, and ensure a mechanism is in place to implement the policy as soon as the commission has decided on a rate.

Moving the pounds 4.15 composite motion, Jane Saren, of Edinburgh Central, said the pounds 8,000 a year it added up to "pales into insignificance beside the telephone number salaries of the chiefs of the privatised utilities". Setting a figure would be a commitment to the difference a Labour government would make, Ms Saren said.

However, after persuasive speeches from Ms Harman and delegates, she agreed to remit the motion. Ms Harman promised Labour would legislate for a minimum wage but said the conference could not both have genuine consultation and set a figure. "The Tory message of a low paid job or no job is a message of despair and we totally reject it. Our goals are full employment and an end to poverty pay. With Labour, they will go hand in hand."

After campaigning for pounds 4 an hour at the TUC conference last month, Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU, repeated his call for a minimum wage but did not mention the controversial figure.

Garfield Davies, leader of the shopworkers' union USDAW, warned that the Conservatives would exploit any sign of division. "Never forget that everything we dream of depends on winning the next election."

But Kumar Sandy, of Welwyn and Hatfield, criticised the "do not disturb" message of Labour image-makers.

"If we don't name our figure, how can we ever convince traditional voters that there is any substancebehind the rhetoric?" he said.

In another positive move for the party leadership, the conference rejected a motion calling for the renationalisation of the water, gas, electricity and telephone industries.