What would be the right rate to set the minimum wage?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
October 25, 2021, 2:25 PM UTC

Most Britons say the £15 an hour minimum wage proposed by some Labour politicians is too high

At the Labour party conference last month, shadow secretary of state for employment rights and protections Andy McDonald resigned following the leadership’s unwillingness to support his calls for a £15 an hour minimum wage.

The argument that followed overshadowed much else happening at the conference. Two weeks beforehand, Labour leader Keir Starmer had said his aim was to push for a minimum wage of at least £10 an hour, which is consistent with what the 2017 Labour manifesto called for by the year 2020.

Currently, the minimum wage is £6.56 for 18-20 year olds, £8.36 for 21-22 year olds and £8.91 for those aged 23 and above. The government has since announced that it will increase the minimum wage from 1 April next year, with the rate among 23+ year olds set to rise to £9.50. 

The call for a £15 hourly wage was ridiculed by some, who pointed out that this would put the minimum wage past what the current average (median) wage is, and the knock on effect that could have on employment. According to the latest ONS figures, the median hourly pay rate in the UK last year was £13.65.

Now new YouGov data shows what the public thinks is a fair minimum wage.

Britons are most likely to think a minimum wage of £10-11 sounds about right

The vast majority of Britons believe that minimum wage rates of £5-9 an hour are too low. This includes 67% who say a minimum wage of £9 an hour is too low (with 30% describing it as “much too low”). This means that the large majority of Britons consider the minimum wage in the UK currently to be too low.

When it comes to a £10 an hour minimum wage – the rate the current Labour leadership wants to bring it up to – Britons tend to say this figure sounds about right, at 47%. Four in ten (39%) still think this sounds too low, however, although only 6% say it sounds too high.

A similar number of Britons also think an £11 per hour minimum wage sounds about right (46%). However, more people now say this sounds too high (19%), while three in ten (29%) still think this sounds too low.

When it comes to a £12 an hour minimum wage, again, a similar number of people say that this level sounds about right (44%). A third of people now think this is too high a price (32%), while the number thinking it is too low falls to 17%.

By the time the minimum wage reaches £13 an hour, Britons tend not to support it any longer. At this point 46% say it sounds too high, compared to 34% who consider it about right.

When it comes to the £15 an hour minimum wage touted by some in the Labour party, a majority of Britons say it sounds too high (58%, including 33% who say it is “much too high”). Only three in ten say it sounds about right (30%).

Conservative voters back a £10 minimum wage

Among Tory voters the most popular rate is £10 an hour, which 52% say sounds about right. In fact, only 25% of Conservative voters think the lower rate of £9 an hour sounds about right, with 63% saying it is too low. This means that the large majority of Tories consider current wages too low, and are in fact most likely to be aligned with the Labour leader on the appropriate level to set the minimum wage.

By contrast, only 38% of Labour voters think the £10 minimum wage sounds like the right rate. In fact, half (53%) say it sounds too low. Unsurprisingly, Labour voters generally support higher minimum wage rates than their Conservative counterparts. The largest proportion of Labour voters say that an £11 (47%) or £12 (48%) minimum wage sounds about right.

Looking at occupational groups, results among workers in ABC1 and C2DE social groups – roughly analogous to middle and working class households – are effectively identical to one another.

Breaking down the results by workers’ personal income, however, shows that better-off Britons are less likely to support the very highest minimum wages. For instance, only 23% of those on an annual income of £40,000 a year or more say a £15 an hour minimum wage sounds right, compared to 30% of those on less than £20,000 a year, 29% of those earning between £20,000 and £30,000 a year, and 33% of those earning between £30,000 and £40,000 a year.

Looking at the results by whether workers/respondents think about pay in terms of hourly income or annual salary also shows that the latter group tend to set the ideal minimum wage at a lower rate than those who are actually paid in such terms.

Methodology

Previous YouGov research has shown that simply asking people to write down what they think the minimum wage should be generates incredibly high levels of “don’t know” responses (around 50% of the large majority of Britons who say there should be a minimum wage).

In order to improve response rates, we gave people a series of potential minimum wage rates and asked whether those values sounded too high, too low, or about right. For simplicity, we also asked respondents to imagine that the minimum wage was set at the same rate across all age groups (as it used to be, and as the majority of Britons support).

We also asked the same question in three different ways: one in which we gave them the value in terms of £ per hour, a second in which we gave the same figure but calculated as an annual full-time wage*, and a third which showed both of these values.

This is because Britons think about how jobs pay in different ways – a preliminary question in the survey shows that 26% of Britons think about jobs in terms of how much they pay per hour, while 44% think of them in terms of how much they pay per year. We did this to check that the way we described the level of pay did not make a big difference to the levels of support.

As it is, the results show that there are slightly higher levels of ‘don’t know’ responses for the variant where we only gave the annual income value. This is particularly the case among those who say they think about jobs in terms of how much they pay hourly.

There were slight variations in results between the question versions,** but for simplicity we have only discussed the results of the question that asked about the minimum wage in hourly terms. This is because the figures presented by the Labour politicians involved, and much of the media reporting, discussed the hourly minimum wage specifically, so this is closest to the language of the debate as it took place in the real world.

*based on a 37.5 hour work week

** Aside from prompting more people to respond “don’t know”, the question variant showing people the annual full-time value of the minimum wage only also seems to have made the wage value look bigger to some people. For instance, in the hourly wage only variant, £6 an hour was seen as “much too low” by 84% of people, and “somewhat too low” by 8% of people. When converted to an annual full-time rate – £11,700 a year – fewer people described it as much too low (67%), and more described it as somewhat too low (18%). Similarly, at the top end of the scale, people given the annual value only were slightly more likely to consider it much too high than people given the equivalent hourly rate.

Full tables coming shortly