This isn’t about “public vs. private,” Mr Alexander

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has come out today to announce that public sector workers will have to work for longer and contribute more to their pensions in what appears to be a pre-emptive strike against public sector unions, as fears grow over a potential “summer of discontent.”

While the debate continues, it is interesting to note one particular argument used by Alexander, which sets the tone for the way the government wish this issue to be read in the media:

It is unjustifiable to ask the taxpayer to work longer and pay more so that public sector workers can retire earlier and receive more themselves.

Note that Alexander suggests this is a case of “the taxpayer” being pitted against “public sector workers.” He appears to have forgotten, or is ignoring, that public sector workers are “taxpayers” too.

But, of course, it suits the government to treat this as an adversarial contest, placing themselves on the side of “the taxpayer” in trying to negotiate down the “unjustifiable” pensions of the public sector. In his report – on which these negotiations are based – Lord Hutton explicitly rejected the accusation that public sector pensions are “gold-plated,” but this is nonetheless a common refrain, especially among private sector workers who have already taken their share of the pain and wish to see some of the burden borne by the public sector too.

Of course, it is not the public sector’s fault that the private sector has allowed itself to be placed in this position by allowing management to ride roughshod over workers for decades, and that a truly “fair” approach to pensions would try to improve the lot of private sector workers rather than damage that of the public sector, but all of this misses the point.

The point is that this is not a “contest” between public and private. Old, tired, right-wing myths such as “the private sector creates wealth; the public sector spends it” are divisive and unhelpful. Simply put, in our mixed economy, they are false. It suits the Tories, and some of their Lib Dem enablers like Danny Alexander, to foster divisions between public and private – and indeed, this corresponds closely with their paradigm that the private sector is automatically righteous and good, with the public sector being backward and wrong. But the reality is rather different – in our economy, public and private complement, rather than conflict with, one another.

It also suits the Tories to engineer a punch-up between themselves and the unions, probably in order to acquire some justification for the next round of anti-union legislation they will surely try to push through. Already we have Tory MPs suggesting that minimum wage laws be relaxed, with further assaults on workers’ rights probable as this parliament proceeds.

While the government pretends that it is in meaningful talks with unions, with Alexander accusing them of being “hell bent on premature strike action before discussions are even complete,” the government indicated months ago that neither the increase in workers’ contributions to their pensions, nor the shift in the pension inflation link from RPI to CPI, were negotiable. Having foreclosed the discussion on both of these important factors, the government was always setting itself up for a battle with the unions – one in which the prize, it hopes, will be the further curtailment of workers’ human right to withdraw their labour.

The way forward, for those of us opposing the government’s moves, will be to outflank them by calling out their adversarial posturing for the stupidity it is. All sectors will need to work together, rather than against one another, if we are serious about fixing our floundering economy.


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