We’re all in it together–especially the public sector


On Wednesday, most of Britain’s public sector employees will be going on strike in what the BBC News continually refers to as “the biggest strike in a generation”. The buildup to this has been long and full of posturing from both sides; each has presented reams of ‘evidence’ to ‘prove’ that the other side is factually mistaken, morally wrong, or just plain selfish. Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard so many conflicting arguments made with so much confidence that, unless you’re easily swayed by demagogues such as union leaders or secretaries of state, you have to acknowledge that this is probably a more complex issue than either side is making it out to be.

Or is it? To boil it down to the essentials we’ve been hearing, it’s about pensions. Unions insist that their members will be working longer and paying more to receive less when they retire. Initially, government spokesmen took the tack of agreeing that this was so, but claiming it was necessary to reduce public sector spending, as the ‘overblown’ state sector was a huge contributor to the country’s unsustainable debt. By a strange coincidence, this happily fitted in with the Conservative Party’s longstanding policy to shrink the public sector; indeed, this is another in a long line of Conservative bugbears that have conveniently been judged to contribute to the dastardly deficit, and must therefore be cut.

So up until recently, it was more of a moral judgement than anything else. Both sides agreed that the proposed reforms would make pensions worse. One said this was regrettable but necessary; the other said it was unjustified and avoidable. Both sides have invoked Lord Hutton’s recent report on the state of public sector pensions, a massive 215 page document apparently capable of supporting any argument providing one takes a choice quote from it out of context.

As the wrangling’s been going on, however, it’s got more vicious, and often more surreal. Yesterday, Education Secretary Michael Gove popped up at a convenient press conference to assert that the unions were full of militant hardliners itching for a fight with the Conservatives, an increasingly popular government stance that’s been echoed by every opponent of the strikes.

Lib Dem puppet and Tory stooge Danny Alexander popped up to inform strikers that “a better deal” was on the table (for “better” read “still not as good as what we want to take away from you”) and issue the threat that if the strikes went ahead, he’d take it away again. It was like that bit in The Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader sternly tells Lando Calrissian, “I have altered the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” At least it was probably like that in Alexander’s mind; to everyone else, he came across like a 10 year old schoolyard bully.

Earlier, Alexander’s boss Francis Maude came up with the frankly bizarre idea that the strikers should content themselves with stopping work for 15 minutes instead of striking for a whole day; because obviously, the main aim of striking should be to cause nobody any inconvenience at all.

All of this smacks of a government floundering in panic at the prospect of some very bad PR, which the strikes would surely be. The various union leaders have generally come across as a little more reasoned, but they have a longstanding spectre of 70s militancy to overcome. The government’s current “militants spoiling for a fight” caricature is designed to play on this; if you think a one day strike is inconvenient, try one that lasts for weeks, as they frequently did over more trivial issues in the 70s.

But this isn’t a trivial issue. We’re talking about millions of people having their conditions of employment altered, to their detriment and without their consent. And as a direct result (and probably an intended one), it’s become a highly divisive issue between those who work in the public sector and those who work in the private sector, which misses the point that everyone’s getting worse off. A reduction in public sector pensions can be used to justify further squeezing of what’s left of the private sector’s, which can in turn be used to justify a further reduction of the public sector’s and so ad infinitum, in what’s being described with irritating frequency as a “race to the bottom”.

A prevailing view among many unsympathetic to the strikers (usually from the private sector) is that “my pension’s terrible, so I don’t see why I as a taxpayer have to pay for you to have a good one”. Leaving aside the fundamental anti-tax “I’m all right Jack” attitude, this still misses the point. What these people should be saying is that, if their pensions are terrible, something should be done about that. If the strikers succeed in getting the government to relent, there might be a chance of that (albeit a slim one). Ironically, it was Gordon Brown’s tax credit raid on private sector pensions that largely left them so much worse off; one more reason why I’m as disillusioned with the Labour Party as I am with either of the others.

Then there’s the view (taken by Call Me Dave Cameron) that the strikes are irresponsible because they’ll cause inconvenience. Well, of course they will! What on earth would be the point of striking if nobody noticed? As pointed out above, this is ONE DAY. And for those who say that the long strikes of the 70s happened under Labour, I’d point you to the 1980s Miners’ strike as evidence that the Conservatives have no better record on industrial relations.

Of course, the trouble with that is that the NUM’s defeat effectively broke the power of the unions (much to Mrs Thatcher’s delight), as a direct result of which so many in the private sector have had so much stripped away from them with no one left to represent their rights. It is probably true to say that the unions had too much power in the 70s and 80s; the problem is that, as their ideological opposite, the Conservatives left them with too little power to be of any use (in the private sector at least) in protecting the rights of workers. With this government poised to do away with the EU Working Time Directive, charge £1000 for unfair dismissal tribunals whether won or lost, reduce the consultancy period for involuntary redundancies and extend probationary periods to make it easier for firms to sack employees without consequence, the irony is that the private sector could really do with good representation right about now. Though I doubt the Conservatives and their friends the “wealth creators” would agree.

In fact, Call Me Dave has said that the strikes will cost the economy £500million, a figure so suspiciously round as to have probably been plucked from midair (or the fevered imagination of George Osborne). It’s hard to know whether this is true or not; certainly the strikes will cost the country something. But somehow our failing economy managed to accommodate two extra days of unproductivity to celebrate some irrelevant royals getting married this year, and will somehow manage to accommodate yet another for the Golden Jubilee next year. You don’t have to be anti-monarchist to think that the working rights of doctors, teachers and firemen are a more important issue than that.

But it’s not just doctors, teachers and firemen; the popular view of the public sector is that it’s massively overstaffed with midlevel bureaucrats who have no real function. On this, I’m really not qualified to say, without doing a lot of research. But I can say, having been an administrator myself, that it’s unlikely the public services could function without at least some of those. Notice the objections to Andrew Lansley’s proposed NHS reforms from doctors insisting they don’t have the time or the training to perform administrative functions. And given that the number of public sector redundancies has just been projected at 500,000 (another suspiciously round number) over the next year, if there is any deadwood it can surely be stripped away as part of that process without having to cut the pensions of those who are left.

In fact, if the public sector is as full of lazy, sick-day taking, workshy, useless bureaucrats as the more extreme right-wingers claim, how can they then go on to say that the strikes are going to cause so much inconvenience? For that matter, how can those critics in one breath say that the strikers are selfish, and in the next moan about having to pay them out of their taxes?

No, the caricatures are running riot on both sides, oversimplifying an actually fairly complex issue. Pensions (and finance generally) are a very nuanced and complicated topic, and I’ve seen debaters on both sides of the argument pull out some very convincing looking statistics and internet links that nonetheless flatly contradict each other. Bear in mind that, whatever you think of Hutton’s report, it took him and a large panel several years to properly examine the issue. That’s why – unlike some armchair internet warriors – I’m not under the impression that I’m infallibly correct in my views.

But they are my views, and like so many political issues, people’s stances on this issue tend to be shaped by personal ethics as much as reasoned argument. I try and balance both, and on this matter have come to the conclusion (informed by both) that I’m behind the strikers. Yes, negotiations are still ongoing (as Ed Miliband told us six times over when the last strike happened). But the details of the government’s new offer have yet to be supplied to the unions, and these ‘negotiations’ have now been going on for over a year. They may not have formally broken down, but I think a year’s worth of wrangling with no satisfactory result comes to the same thing, doesn’t it?

Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t scope for reform of public sector pensions. It’s just that, curiously, the reform seems to be targeting the lower earners rather than those like, say, Eric Pickles (estimated pension £43,000 a year, index-linked) or the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury (not sure of the exact figure, but it’s more than the Prime Minister). And don’t forget they’re (unbelievably) still entitled to their state pension on top of this. Why not start by targeting the public sector’s massive pension inequality (which is what pushes the much-quoted average pension up anyway) rather than hitting those in the middle and at the bottom? That could make a start at saving money, surely.

And to all those persisting in demonising teachers, who seem to be the most conspicuous part of this strike – if you think they’re bad now (and they’re not, mostly) how do you think they’re going to get any better if you cut the incentive to do the job? So you have to take one day off work to care for your child rather than rely on state education as a free childcare service? Pardon me if I don’t feel too sympathetic. You may be losing a day’s holiday, but you’re still getting paid, which is more than the striking teachers are.

And just before you bring up the short working days and long holidays teachers get, do you honestly believe that the job consist of nothing more than manning a classroom in the school day? A decent teacher has to get in early, work late (usually at home, into the evening) and may well spend those long holidays researching the next term’s lesson plans and teaching. Or marking exams to get a better understanding of how to teach the qualifications. I think, if you do the sums, you’ll find that teachers aren’t having the great time you think they are. In fact, in my experience, a lot of them have so much stress it’s a wonder they don’t have nervous breakdowns. You think it’s hard doing a Powerpoint presentation to a hostile boardroom? Try doing something similar with 20 belligerent sixteen year olds all day every day, and see how stressful those board meetings seem after that.

Anyway, teacher-based rant over – for now. I will acknowledge that both sides of this debate are over simplifying it, but thus far no political party (even the suspiciously silent Labour) is helping at all. The cynic in me says that the strikes will almost certainly not win the cause of retaining the current pension arrangements, and also does run the risk of the government taking the excuse to further cut down workers’ rights to strike. But even if the strikers don’t win, they are, like the Occupy movement, sending a message – a message that there are other ways to pay for the country’s problems rather than stripping everyone’s rights to nothing. It’s a message that politicians would do well to heed, if only to win back the increasingly large proportion of the electorate who, right now, wouldn’t vote for a single one of them.