I know we've been told for years now that Gordon Brown is "a master political strategist". But I think that I have only just woken up to the idea that maybe he really, really is. The moment of (possible) truth came not as I watched his fabulously relaxed performance before a wearily grumpy TUC conference the other day, but when I digested the sparse, uniform media analysis of the encounter that came afterwards. He knows he can finesse a lot of the trouble threatened ahead, and he knows the press and the public mood will help him to do so.
It's significant in itself, though hardly new, that the media adjudges its consumers – even though a fifth of the workforce is employed by the public sector – to be not much interested. The whys and wherefores of special-needs music therapists' working conditions or of lab technicians' parlous remuneration, after all, are far too drearily commonplace for the excitable needs of our bold new information-hungry 24-hour digital age, especially when their suits are being pressed by fat sweaty men with yellow teeth.
Even the hottest issues can be deemed immediately deadly when the magic words "union", "public" and "sector" are uttered. The prison officers' walkout, for example, provoked only a tiny frisson of interest from cyber-communities. Yet it's painfully obvious that prison officers are at the sharp end of a scandalously crisis-ridden system of incarceration. They've already had two years of below-inflation increases, and another two years of the same isn't going to help matters terribly much, whichever way you cut it.
Brown himself is just not at all keen on recruiting more prison officers to staff more prisons, as his reluctance at the Treasury to earmark budgets for staffing even the new prisons that are planned attests. Having presided over a large expansion of public service workers, he's become a bit fed up with the humans who needs-must be involved in building brave new health or education worlds, soaking up all the cash he can splash, and he's not that keen to encourage more of the same. This is far from unlikely to prove politically unpopular, and Brown knows this well.
Fortuitously, the Prime Minister's caution chimes with the general impression being formed by chunks of a formerly sympathetic public, alongside all those fantasists who will never stop believing that if the public sector disappeared in a puff of smoke tomorrow we'd all live happily ever after. Yesterday's report by Derek Wanless into NHS reforms since 2002 arrived just in time to remind everybody once again exactly where the £43bn bonanza went.
Nearly half of the cash was squandered on mere humans, with hospital consultants getting a rise of 25 per cent, GPs a rise of 23 per cent (plus bargain out-of-hours opt-out) and nurses a rise of 16 per cent – though the latter are still so poorly paid that even the Daily Mail rouses itself to occasional outrage over the matter. The report comes with a warning that the huge investment has not had the impact on productivity it was expected to, so even though it's far from a vindication of the Government's strategy so far, it's more useful to Brown than it might have been, because it sharpens the now widespread suspicion that better salaries don't buy better services. Prime Minister Brown is lucky as well as shrewd.
In truth though, the largesse has been unevenly divided, doesn't represent the situation that many public sector workers – notably academics – find themselves in, and exacerbates rather than soothes widespread morale problems. This is a management mess rather than a workforce one, but it hasn't always been playing out in the public consciousness that way. Some of the lowest-paid members of the skilled workforce are now being asked to tighten their domestic belts because of past government policy failure, but there appears to be only the dimmest awareness of this.
What was a lot more notable than media indifference to the prospect of gaggles of public sector workers threatening orchestrated cascades of strikes, was the tacit presumption that somehow Brown would be greeted by the unions as an exciting new friend. Reports focused on how the representatives of millions of people being offered by him what is in real terms a pay cut, seemed lukewarm rather than enthusiastic to have Brown in their midst; as if this was a surprise. The real surprise, surely, was how insouciant Brown was in the face of all that simmering resentment, which he must have expected even if journalists didn't, because he took the precaution of telegraphing it weeks ago.
A certain amount of that resentment is more than justified, after all, as some public sector staff really find themselves in highly anomalous and deeply illogical positions, as Brown knows. Any boss telling any workforce that the personal micro-management of inflation is part of their job description would ruffle a few feathers.
But telling nurses working in England that they must consider fiscal restraint to be their duty along with their other, more mundane ones, when they all understand perfectly well that no such strictures have been applied to their colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is actually somewhat absurd, especially when it's coming from a fervent unionist (that's Great British unionist rather than comrade). This makes the nurses' dispute look a likely place for Brown to find a little ground – and a lot of favour in the Daily Mail.
And further ground is hinted at. There was quite a bit in Brown's speech that was designed not just to mollify, but to prick consciences. A reiteration of a commitment to enforcing the minimum wage, a positive, can-do, prettily idealistic approach to achieving full employment, and an attack on the sharp practice of a lot of employment agencies – all this presses guilty leftie buttons. Public sector workers are more aware than anyone that most of the people being paid the least to deliver public services are not among their number at all, but employed on contracts by the private sector, denied the wages and conditions that they themselves are complaining about.
This may be a sign that Brown might be persuaded to look with a less disciplinary eye on the lowest paid people in the public sector as well as the people working alongside them, thus appealing to the most cherished ideological commitments of the movement without having to lavish the great deal of cash he's presently being pressed for. If this is his plan, then he set up everything beautifully.
In the long-term, it's true, he's back to square one, relying on a not-much placated public sector to drive through reforms that they're too demoralised to carry out. But for a long time now that has been political business as usual, and everyone is used to it, bored with it, and not much inclined to chat about it round the water-cooler. Strikes averted, voters happy, sums not too bad, job done. No wonder he's breezy.