Rishi Sunak’s difficulties over public sector pay are a subset of his wider political problems. Younger voters are not used to pay restraint against a background of high inflation (for which read anyone much below the age of 50). Neither Covid at home – and elsewhere – nor war in Ukraine had happened in 2019, when the last general election took place.
Boris Johnson’s manifesto was a cornucopia of public spending commitments, he was reflexively hostile to Coalition-era “austerity” (after it happened, in any event) – and the Prime Minister has no mandate of his own to deal with what some like to portray as a general strike.
It would not be unreasonable for the Government to legislate for minimum service levels in our public services – nor unusual in Europe. But turning the concept into law might not be straightforward, and while hard cases may not always make bad law, they are likely to make law that ends up before the courts.
Furthermore, that Sunak has no mandate for change would mean yet more problems in the Lords, so legislation would be unlikely to pass through Parliament quickly. Nor is it clear that minimum service levels would satisfy a public that wants hospital appointments soon, the trains to run on time, their children to go to school, and so on.
In the meantime, those younger voters are watching the steps of a dance familiar to older ones. An independent pay body recommends pay awards to workers. The Government accept it. The unions do not. They demand to meet Ministers. Ministers say that the unions should talk to employers.
At least, they usually do: Mark Harper has met with Mick Lynch of the RMT. And Brandon Lewis settled the criminal barristers’ strike during the brief Truss Government. “A planned 15 percent fee increase for criminal barristers will now apply to the vast majority of cases currently in the Crown Court,” the Government announced at the time.
Whatever the circumstances of the deal, and for all the self-employment of most barristers, the signal that it sent to the public sector wasn’t one of restraint. At any rate, the dance continues. Ministers say they’ll meet unions – but not to discuss pay. Unions turn the screw by suggesting that talks about pay would mean industrial action postponed.
They then invoke ACAS – whose function is not, repeat not, to implement Government pay policy. Broadly speaking, any ACAS ruling is likely to split the difference. And that Ministers are responsible for pay awards which they themselves don’t draw up leaves them exposed and isolated.
After all, the pay bodies themselves don’t rush out daily in front of the cameras to make the case for their recommendations. Nor are the employers eager to back them up. “Pay is a matter for the independent pay review bodies, it’s a matter for the Government,” Stephen Powis, NHS England’s Medical Director, told Laura Kuenssberg yesterday.
Nonetheless, the news for Ministers isn’t all bad. As our proprietor likes to say, opinion polls are a snapshot, not a prediction. But there is little doubt that the public is more sympathetic to some causes than others: the nurses start with more sympathy than railways workers, for example, especially given this week’s coming industrial action.
And for all the talk of a general strike, it isn’t clear yet how wide and deep the effects of the coming action will be. As James Frayne likes to remind us, most people travel by road, not by rail: those who work on the former, or who help keep our borders secure, or who work key infrastructure, or who collect the bins, are best placed to cause chaos (whatever their intention).
The greatest danger for Sunak is that the strikes project a sense that nothing works in Britain and that he is weak. The corresponding peril for Keir Starmer is that Labour is seen to backing the unions – and public opinion suddenly turns against the strikes, raising the mass doubts about “Long Corbyn” that the party’s leader is striving to quell.
Hence Labour’s position on the coming action: which is not to back the pay claims, but to suggest that, were the party in government, the unions wouldn’t be making them; and that a Labour government would “tear-up anti-trade union legislation such as the Trade Union Act 2016” – so leaving it unclear what other Conservative laws it would repeal.
This position is as shrewd as it is risible: most people couldn’t care less what Labour has to say, and won’t until the general election draws much nearer, so bashing the Tories will do for the moment. But Starmer is vulnerable to more Labour front benchers – or MPs anyway – dashing off to stand on picket lines, and to financial pressure from his union backers.
If you take a charitable view, the Government is circling the unions and Labour like a wary gunslinger, waiting for the right moment to move – as public opinion hardens against strikes, is more willing to listen to the kind of anti-union rhetoric with which many Tory MPs feel comfortable, and prepared to line up behind new legislation.
If you take a less kind one, Ministers don’t have a clear message because they don’t have a clear strategy. What’s the top line? Are they on the back foot – saying that pay is a matter for the independent review bodies, whose recommendations the Government has accepted? Or are they on the front foot – saying that the country just can’t afford to pay the claims?
“What I’m not going to do is ask ordinary families up and down the country to pay an extra £1000 a year to meet the pay demands of the union bosses,” the Prime Minister said last week. That was at the aggressive end of the spectrum. Will other Ministers say the same? Is there an agreed form of words – a line to take?
Finally, the Conservative Party’s collective political memory is longer than that of the relatively unengaged public. Large parts of it remember the 1980s, and Margaret Thatcher defeating trade union power. The narrative of irresponsible unions, unaffordable wage demands and high inflation is so familiar as to be continuously retold.
But what was true 40 years ago may not be so now. Since 2010, average pay has risen by 5.5 per cent in the private sector but fallen by 5.9 per cent in the public sector. That’s a recent turnaround – the decline in public sector pay has taken place during the past two years.
So unless or until unemployment rises substantially, it may indeed be that, if public sector pay increases are successfully held down, there is worker flight from the public to the private sector. And a good thing too, you will say in response. But that depends where any labour shortages in the public sector manifest themselves.
As Henry Hill argued on this site recently, we should recruit and train more British nurses rather than recruit from abroad. “On NHS recruitment, as so much else” he wrote, “the habit of British politicians is to shirk long-term investment, ignore structural reform entirely, and then plead the exigencies of the moment to claim to voters that the status quo really is the best we can do.
And while there is such a thing as a wage-price spiral – not least when plague and wars rage – there is also such a thing as loose monetary policy. The Bank of England has tightened up after excessive easing. If it sticks to its guns, and inflationary pressures from abroad ease, it will be harder to claim that public sector wage rises are putting the economy at risk.