Will John Lewis dare to lead by example?

The leaders of the three main parties all support the Living Wage. If John Lewis bravely endorses the policy, we could hear a lot more about this exciting idea

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Speaking at a conference staged by the Policy Network think tank last week, Ed Miliband repeated his affection for the living wage. The Labour leader said: “There is a distinction between a legislated-for minimum wage and a living wage that we can find different ways of promoting. You are going to have a legislated minimum and then you are going to have a living wage above that.”

A living wage increases the wealth of poor people without recourse to the law, and by taking those people out of benefits reduces the burden on the rest of us. There is no evidence that it stymies employment, and over the past few years it has taken an astonishing 15,000 Londoners out of working poverty. What’s not to like?

This idea is the unusual category of being something that all three leaders support, but is not yet widely adopted – a bit like gay marriage. Shortly before the last election, David Cameron said it was “an idea whose time has come”. Nick Clegg voiced his support too. And this week marks an important stage in the journey to fairer pay.

Two and a half years ago, London Citizens – part of Citizens UK, the biggest alliance of community groups in Britain – approached the John Lewis partnership to talk about them introducing the living wage. At an open meeting tonight in Westminster Quakers House, John Lewis customers, partners and cleaners will discuss a crucial decision: whether 3,000 cleaners who work in John Lewis, but are outsourced, should be brought into the partnership.

Currently these hardworking men and women struggle on two or 3 jobs to make ends meet and are bereft of time to spend with their children with no prospect of career advancement. This exclusion from the rewards of a successful company does not fit the vision of the founder Spedan Lewis.

The company is expected to make a decision this autumn. If it does the right thing, and gives the cleaners partner status – with associated benefits of sick pay, holidays, pensions and so on – the reputational reward would be fantastic and they will be seen to have where others follow.

The mutual model that John Lewis champions is lauded by all political parties, and everything about this campaign is cheering, from the grassroots campaign to the access London Citizens have been given to the top of the company. All it needs now is a positive decision in the Autumn. For what it’s worth, if John Lewis do the right thing I promise to report it. And if they do the wrong thing – well, I’ll report that too.

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