If Theresa May doesn't change her approach to public sector pay, she will make way for the party who will

Our BMG poll finds that 56 per cent of British people say they are willing to pay more in tax to give a pay rise to police officers, paramedics and nurses 

Sunday 16 July 2017 11:32 BST
Comments
A new poll shows that the public's view on public sector pay is at odds with that of the Government
A new poll shows that the public's view on public sector pay is at odds with that of the Government (REUTERS)

The stalling of pay over the past nine years is a huge fact of British politics, and one which the Prime Minister failed to notice when she called last month’s election. Most people’s pay was rising, briefly, at the time of the 2015 election, which may help to explain why David Cameron unexpectedly won. But by 8 June inflation and the cap on public sector wage rises meant that for most voters real pay was falling, which may help to explain why Theresa May unexpectedly lost her majority.

Our BMG poll today helps to explain how May misjudged the public mood. It finds that 56 per cent of British people say they are willing to pay more in tax to give a pay rise to police officers, paramedics and nurses – twice as many as say they are not. Conservative voters are just as willing as any others to pay more tax to lift the public sector pay cap.

So this is not a matter of naive Labour supporters voting for the free stuff promised in Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto, which was costed with all the rigour of a night out on someone else’s credit card. People realise that better public services have to be paid for and, after seven years of stringency, they are prepared to pay the price.

It will be objected that this is an opinion poll, and that its findings are sensitive to the wording of the questions. This is certainly true. BMG found that, although a large majority support the ending of the pay cap in principle, that number falls when people are asked whether they are willing to accept higher taxes to pay for it. While a tax increase to pay for emergency service workers is supported by a margin of two to one, that willingness drops to an equal split (42 per cent in favour, 41 per cent against) when the question is about lifting the pay cap for non-emergency occupations.

And of course there is a difference between an opinion-poll finding and what might happen when an actual tax rise hits the voter’s bank balance. Nevertheless, the public mood has shifted against “austerity” and, as long as interest rates remain low, there is no reason why a public sector pay rise should be fully funded by tax increases in any case. This is a point repeatedly made by Ben Chu, our Economics Editor: there is no urgent need to reduce the deficit if public spending would do more to keep the economy growing.

This is a difficult judgement to make, but it is apparent that the pressure on Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, as he prepares for this year’s second Budget in the autumn (as we move to having it as a permanent autumn fixture), is all one way. It is not just public sector pay, but base funding for the NHS and schools that drove votes in Labour’s direction last month.

Then there are the pressures on the Government finally to deliver a house-building programme that would make a difference to the crisis to which the charred Grenfell Tower stands as a terrible memorial. Finally, there are the cuts to tax credits for the working poor that are still pencilled into the spending plans over the next few years as part of the supposed transition to universal credit – no Government that professes to care about the “just about managing” can afford to allow those cuts to go ahead.

A judicious increase in tax, combined with a modest relaxation in borrowing, is what the nation needs. Never mind what happens in the Brexit negotiations: if Ms May and Mr Hammond cannot deliver the relief that the public services need, they will have to give way to a team who can.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in