Mark Steel: The Government is trying to do a runner

Maybe they will issue guidelines on registering rhubarb crumble in Jersey as an off-shore pudding
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The Independent Online

Away we go with the tirades about trade unionists protecting their privileges, or as the Daily Mail put it: "The stench of crude self-interest." The trouble is, all reasonable people agree, we're living longer than we used to. If the unions could for once put their narrow-minded attitudes to one side and act in the public interest, they'd instruct their members that when they get to 67 they should kill themselves. Then we could guarantee an adequately funded modern pension scheme - but instead it's just "me, me, me" as usual.

One solution that radical think-tanks may have been investigating is to target sectors of the public-sector workforce nearing retirement and introduce them to bird flu. Or perhaps it was part of the deal to release Norman Kember, that the group who'd been holding him could come here and kidnap as many pensioners as they like, as long as they stuck to retired local government employees.

The argument is that as we're living this long, we should make provisions for our own pension, but the people on strike yesterday were low-paid workers such as school dinner ladies. So they're to be advised on how to make wise investments in the stock market, are they? Maybe the Government will issue guidelines, such as: "Why not help your nest egg by registering the rhubarb crumble in Jersey as an off-shore pudding?"

And then there is bound to be a report that "the strike of traffic wardens led to piles of cars being parked in the middle of roads, which hearses couldn't pass, meaning once again the unions have left us unable to bury our dead".

But the main case against the strike is the one backed by the Government, that what the unions are seeking is "discrimination" because "private-sector workers face a bleak struggle in retirement". They do face a bleak struggle, but that's because the Government cut the link between pensions and earnings, which if restored would make all pensioners £52 a week better off.

So the argument seems to be: "We've treated everyone else like shit, now if you don't let us treat you the same, that's not fair on the others is it?" Burglars should try this technique, calling at the neighbours of people they've robbed and explaining that if you don't give them your TV and jewellery, you're seeking discrimination against the poor sod next door, you selfish pig.

The pension scheme the unions are trying to protect has been referred to in many places as "gold-plated". Yet for most people on strike, it amounts to £31 a week. Which, as gold-plating goes, is probably not something Puff Daddy would be impressed by. If you visited a private pension salesman, would he say: "Or, if sir would like to look here, we do have our deluxe Classico gold-plated pension, specially designed for the discerning gentleman who wishes to enjoy his autumn years in gold-plated splendour. And behold sir, £31 a week, if you will. Monte Carlo here you come."

I wonder what colour code they would attribute to the average pension enjoyed by a director of one of the top 100 companies in Britain, which amounts to £167,000 a year. Maybe they've got a sense of irony and call it "The Bleak Struggle".

That's why it's so deceitful for the Government or its supporters to complain the strike "hurts the poor". The Mail even lamented that the strikers didn't have such a noble cause as the General Strike of 1926, when "the coal miners were battling against savage wage cuts". Oh, so the Mail would have been fully in support of them then. It's surprising it didn't continue: "and the honest striking miner of 1926 had the decency to die of emphysema at 40 rather than be a burden by carrying on to 80, playing rummy and wetting himself at the taxpayers' expense."

In many ways, the attack on pensions is a "savage wage cut". When the employees signed their contract of employment, the pension plan was part of that agreement. Now it's being reneged on, which is a posh way of saying the Government is trying to do a runner.

At least when someone does this in a restaurant it's with no pretence of honesty, just a sly wait until the waiter's looking the other way, then swoosh, out and down the High Street. They don't try to appear morally superior by saying to the manager: "I know we've eaten this meal, but the fact is we can't afford it any more. After all, we did a runner from the curry house last night so it's hardly fair if you seek discrimination."

No one disputes that the wealth is there to maintain decent pensions, the argument is about how we collect and distribute it. We could do it the old-fashioned way, by taxing the wealthiest, such as those with a pension of £167,000 a year, then share it out so everyone knows what they'll get and feels secure. Or there's the modern method, where everyone fends for themselves, so those with the least to spare have to somehow find the most, which will pay out an amount no one can predict because it's gambled on the stock market.

Only once was I foolish enough to inquire about a pension plan. A short bald man, with a Clement Attlee moustache and a weasely voice, showed me a graph in his folder that explained how my investment would "perform" according to whether it rose by 6, 9 or 12 per cent per year. "But these figures are just arbitrary," I said. "What happens if the stock market falls by 12 per cent a year?" He shut the folder, said: "Well, then we're all fucked, Mr Steel," and showed me the door.

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