Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, was booed and heckled by public sector union delegates today when he refused to promise that a Labour government would give them the pay rises they have been demanding.
Public sector unions are planning a renewed campaign of industrial action over job cuts pay and pension in the coming months, in protest at the way the government’s attempts to bring down the deficit have hit government and council employees.
But Mr Balls warned that he could not promise they would be better paid under a Labour government, which would make reducing unemployment a higher priority.
The heckling came after the shadow Chancellor had delivered the main speech at today's annual TUC conference in Brighton, as he was taking questions from the floor.
Liz Cameron, a delegate from the largest public sector union, Unison, was cheered as she demanded to know why the Shadow Chancellor was supporting the pay freeze imposed by the coalition government.
Mr Balls replied: “When you are losing hundreds of thousands of jobs, you cannot say the first priority is more pay for public sector workers. That is the reality because of the Government's failure on the economy. We have always said let us put jobs first.”
These remarks drew boos and heckles from some of the delegates, and were criticised later by union leaders. Unison’s General Secretary, Dave Prentis, said: “If he really understood the massive impact of a three-year pay freeze on families struggling to pay for food and fuel, or forced to turn to pay-day loans where interest can be a terrifying 4,000 per cent, he too would be calling for an end to the pay freeze.“
But while the unions maintained a united front in public, some were saying privately that Mr Balls had no choice but to stand his ground. “It’s as well he took questions from the floor, because that gave them the chance to boo him, which is what they wanted,” one official who does not represent public employees remarked.
Mr Balls’s speech was heard without interruption, and drew cheers as he attacked the government’s economic record. At one point, he flattered his audience by saying that there had been times when Labour ministers should have listened more carefully to the advice they were getting from the TUC on issues such as the minimum wage and the protection of agency workers..
“It was TUC members who were telling us to address the housing shortage – and we were too slow to unlock the door to councils investing in new housing,” he added.