The government – not the unions – are itching for a fight


There is never a good time for a strike, and the current economic circumstances make now a particularly bad time. With all the present uncertainty facing the British economy disruptions caused by industrial action add to the more general burdens.

But the decision by the Lib Dems and the Tories to demonise public sector workers is wrong. The deliberately provocative rhetoric from ministers show that the Government is spoiling for a fight.

The indifference to public sector redundancies, from the Prime Minister down, suggest the jobs of care workers and teachers and border guards aren’t important and don’t need to be done. Senior Lib Dem David Laws dismissed the 132000 public sector job losses last year as an “orderly shedding of labour”. This is a pretty unpleasant way for a Government to think of its citizens.

The Tory Party has the bit between its teeth, treating public service in general as the enemy and determined to rerun the 1984 miners strike over the issue of public sector pensions.

The day after the Chancellor’s statement in Parliament last week, two Tory and Lib Dem-sympathetic newspapers, the Times and the Guardian, carried the same triumphalist headline: “Osborne strikes first”. Clearly briefed. The strategy is designed to provoke.

A favourite argument of the Tories at the moment is to claim the Labour Party are financially in the pocket of the trade unions. The largest civil service union, the PCS, are not affiliated to the Labour Party, and donate nothing. The largest teachers union, the NUT, are not affiliated to the Labour Party, and donate nothing. The Tories take half a million pounds a month from the hedge funds and private equity firms and financiers in the city who did so much to get us into economic difficulty.

Another favourite argument is to draw false distinctions between public and private sector pensions, without mentioning private pension tax reliefs. The real issue here is about pay packages in total, not just about pensions.

A third argument is that negotiations are still ongoing so there should be no strikes, but below inflation pay rises have been imposed, and pension indexation has been altered from RPI to CPI, by the Government, without negotiation.

The Hutton Report is a good starting point for consideration of the issues on their merits. Demographic change necessitates a change in the funding arrangements if schemes are to be fit for purpose for future generations. The adjustments needed are not immediate; they are for the medium and long term, which is why it is right to have the negotiations now and why the adversarial rhetoric on the Conservative side is such a destructive policy for the Tories to pursue.

One of the worst offenders in all this is the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, who keeps threatening to “take the enhancements off the table if agreements can’t be reached”.  Some progress has been made in the negotiations, in particular steps to partially protect the low paid. This is why Alexander’s threats to take away that progress are so unfair.

At the end of all this, at some point in the future, they will be paying more into their pensions, their retirement age will be raised and the eventual pension may be less. At a time when pay is frozen and annual inflation running above 5%, nurses, bin men and dinner ladies see themselves demonised by the Government, and their negotiators denounced as militants.

We are not all in this together. I don’t like strikes, but I support this one. The way forward is through negotiation, not Bullingdon bullying.

Nick Brown is a former cabinet minister and the MP for Newcastle East.

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