Tory plans for public sector pay and industrial action will inevitably make Britain an even more unequal society

You just have to have some basic decency to see something wrong with a country that has a record number of billionaires alongside the rise of food bank queues

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The Independent Online

This week we have learned two things about what a future Conservative government would do. First, public sector pay would be held back below inflation until at least 2018. Second, the law on industrial action would be changed in ways that would make strike ballots so hard to win that it would be almost impossible for public sector workers to do anything about it.

Ministers will wrap this message up as economic necessity. It is all about balancing the nation's books, they will say, perhaps even feigning a touch of regret. But the real purpose is highly political.

Politicians are often attacked for not having a vision, but this is not a charge that can be levelled at the modern Conservative Party. The complaint is rather that they are keeping their vision to themselves.

The public sector pay freeze is just one way to shrink the state in ways only experienced to date by countries hit by a sudden emergency such as Greece. The difference here is that this is a conscious political project, not a crisis response.

While many might not notice this in their pay packets, the statistics will shortly show that the economy has recovered to where it was in 2008. So now is the time that public services and the pay of public servants might be expected to start sharing in that recovery. But that is not the plan.

Popular public services may have been promised ring-fenced funding (even though that means real cuts in the NHS as the population ages and medicine advances), but this makes the scale of the cuts elsewhere terrifying. No-one has spelled out how you can get a further twelve billion pounds worth of cuts from the welfare budget without severe injury to the safety net that any of us might need.

Local government will no longer be able to do the minimum the law requires, let alone exercise any discretion.

The collapse of morale that this will bring coupled with more than a decade of declining living standards for public sector staff will lead to a vicious circle of decline. Public services will no longer be able to recruit and retain the good staff they need.

This will doubtless provoke opposition. But ministers are planning to neuter this too. Campaign groups already face new restrictions on how much they can spend in the run up to the election - a limit that does not apply to Rupert Murdoch. Beyond the election it is clear that a majority Conservative government will look to a renewed Thatcherite onslaught on trade unions, particularly in the public sector.

Pre-election proposals to stop check-off - the procedure where union members' subs are collected by the employer (though usually at the expense of the union) - have been headed off by Lib Dem ministers in most departments. There is no doubt however that it is still on the Conservative agenda.

But most worrying is the proposal to introduce changes to union ballots that would make industrial action close to impossible. The detail is far from clear, but some mix of minimum turn-outs and minimum yes votes seems to be in store that will lift the bar to levels that ballots in big workforces never reach in practice.

Anyone who has ever been inconvenienced by a strike might be attracted by this. But the point about a right to strike is that it provides some balance in workplace power. Employers negotiate with unions not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because collective action gives employees some countervailing power to that of the employer. That is why it is called negotiation. It is not what Oliver Twist was doing when he asked for some more.

Unions know full well that badly supported ballots with small majorities give them less bargaining power than overwhelming mandates. But employers also know that inevitably smaller turn-outs in big diffuse workforces does not mean that a strike, if called, would not get good support. Good negotiators understand the strengths and the limits of the power on both sides of the bargain and their interdependence, which is why Thursday's mass strike is the exception rather than the rule.

Arbitrary thresholds will undermine good industrial relations and the collective bargaining that institutions like the IMF now encourages as one way of reducing inequality. They also have absurd unintended consequences. A vote against strike action that pushes a ballot over a turn-out threshold could be the vote that makes a strike legal.     

Any legal measure that shifts power in the workplace will not just have an impact on the number of strikes. It will not just weaken the workers' hand in collective bargaining, but because unionised workplaces set the pace across the economy, it will also drive down standards and pay everywhere.

Britain already has some of the toughest rules on industrial action of any democratic country. That is one reason why we are also one of the most unequal and why the living standards crisis has been so prolonged. Weaker unions can only increase the gap between those at the top and everyone else.

It is not only those on the progressive side of politics who worry about growing inequality. You just have to have some basic decency to see something wrong with a country that has a record number of billionaires alongside the rise of food bank queues. Far from making work pay as the government claims to have done, we now have more people in work below the poverty line than those out of work.

Shifting the balance even further towards the employer as the Prime Minister now advocates will inevitably make Britain an even more unequal society. Is that what the British people really want? 

Frances O'Grady, TUC General Secretary

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