The annual TUC conference has opened with familiar headlines, almost the same ones as last year and the year before that, too. Perhaps they are precisely the same headlines. Here is the opening of one BBC news bulletin yesterday: “The TUC’s annual Congress is likely to be dominated by calls for unions to come together to hold strikes.”
Here we go again. Union leaders have one chance a year to set the news agenda. They chose once more to place the focus on the threat of further strikes. Many other worthy issues are under discussion at their gathering in Brighton, but they have allowed the talk of industrial action to become the overwhelming theme, the only one that most of the public will notice.
They did not have to do so. Were they more politically astute, we could have awoken to headlines about their views on the demands of the changing workplace, their take on how to achieve growth, or even how to make the public sector a more dynamic place to work given that some of their members are as frustrated by its inefficiencies and conservatism as they are by their salaries, pensions and the rest. Any of these could have given them headlines. As usual, the space was filled with talk of strikes, separate strikes, co-ordinated strikes, perhaps a general strike.
Last year, the threat to public sector pensions was the trigger. This year, it is the pay freeze. Sure enough, over the past year even GPs, the best paid in Europe, took industrial action over the threat to their generous pension arrangements. No doubt this week’s deliberations will be followed by walk-outs that will cause worry and disruption – not to David Cameron and George Osborne who will hope that any high-profile chaos will lead to awkward questions for Labour’s leadership, but for the low-paid users of public services who are dependent on their reliability.
No one can accuse the union leaders of malevolent political subtlety. Instead, we get a stark message that will alienate the widest possible number of voters. Voters, not unions, have the power to bring about a much-needed change of economic policy. Those who will be alienated include the unemployed who would be thrilled to get a job, those in work who fear they may soon be unemployed, and vast numbers in the private sector who have accepted pay freezes or pay cuts for years and far less generous pensions in the recognition that the alternative was the closure of the firm that employs them precariously.
Of course there are many low-paid workers who will retire on pensions that will impoverish them further. Low pay and poverty-level pensions are issues that require urgent ministerial attention. But this is not the argument I hear from Brighton. I hear indiscriminate arguments against a freeze on all public sector pay and in defence of all pension deals.
I am wary of using personal anecdotes but while I was at the Edinburgh Festival I bumped into old friends in their early fifties with public sector pensions so generous that I cannot compete with their lifestyles. They were between foreign holidays, recommended lavish restaurants, enjoyed the theatres and good wine. One told me that she had been offered a pension only a few pounds lower than her monthly salary. It was too good to refuse. The drinks were on her, but I won’t support strikes so that there will be many more drinks on people like her.
Similarly, some in the public sector earn wages they do not deserve, with responsibilities so ill-defined they are lucky to get away with a pay freeze. They “work” side by side with those who are appallingly paid and who work very hard. But the sweeping calls for a strike over “cuts” or a “freeze” are impossible to sustain in the current climate or, frankly, in any climate.
The Coalition was right to deal with the excessive generosity of some public sector pensions and right also to constrain pay at a time when millions worry about finding work or acquiring the skills for a career. No doubt there are anomalies and stark iniquities in the details of their approach. This is not an administration bothered about detail. If there are anomalies, the unions, and indeed the Labour leadership, should focus on them. The self- evident wider truth that the public sector did not cause the apocalyptic financial crisis and that those who did continue to award themselves grotesque pay rises serves little purpose in this specific context. If bankers did not get paid a penny for the next 10 years that would not provide the cash now to finance pay rises and more-than-generous pensions for those who worked, in some cases, for a few relatively undemanding decades.
The outgoing TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber has been a figure of modest decency and thoughtful radicalism, as was his predecessor, John Monks. His speech yesterday was balanced and well argued in its dissection of the failure of the Coalition’s economic policy. It was also one of many that will cite the Olympics, an event dependent on political will and investment, as a better model than George Osborne’s narrowly envisaged, anti-state austerity. But this is a political case and not one that will be proven by industrial action that looks parochially selfish. In interviews, Barber was more restrained than some of the union leaders.
Some senior figures in the Labour party look on admiringly at the modern unions in Germany and parts of northern Europe, which fully engage with the hugely complex demands and fast-moving changes of the modern workplace. They despair at the backward-looking approach of some trade union leaders here. David Miliband has occasionally hinted that, had he won the leadership, he would have broken Labour’s formal link with the unions, although I doubt if he would have done so, not least because Labour needs their money. The Conservative leadership plans to make much of Ed Miliband’s being in the hands of the union leaders in the run-up to the election. Most of it will be nonsense, but the relationship is still a potentially significant vote loser for Labour.