Of course it is easy in one sense to see why the potential strikers have allowed themselves to become so fired up. Ever since John Hutton produced his report, it has been clear that many people will effectively have to pay more and work longer to get the same sort of pension – and it is quite understandable that unions should want to represent this sense of grievance. And yet there has been one statistic that is eloquent of the underlying reality in the dispute.
Only about a third of union members even took part in the ballot. Of the 1.1 million members of Unison, just 29 per cent could be bothered to vote at all – and since only 78 per cent voted in favour, we have a strike triggered by less than a quarter of union membership.
Why such apparent apathy? The issue has been well publicised, surely, and though union membership has greatly diminished, you would expect feeling to be more intense among the dedicated folk who continue to belong. The answer is that many hard-working trade union members have thought about this argument, and they accept in their hearts that there is a case for reform. The Government has already made important clarifications. No one earning under £15,000 per year will have to pay more for his or her pension; and no one will have to work longer to get a pension if they are already within 10 years of retirement.
But, as the Hutton report makes clear, we are all living longer, and the Government’s pensions bill has risen by a third in the last 10 years. Yes, I suppose we could just whack more taxes on the “bankers”, and there will doubtless be something of the kind in the Autumn Statement. In the end, though, the system needs reform, and by that I mean we must address the fundamental injustice that modestly paid people in the private sector are paying in their taxes for state pensions on a scale that most private sector pensioners can only dream of.
The old argument used to be that it was acceptable for public sector salaries to lag behind salaries in the private sector, partly because public sector workers had the consolation of more generous pension packages. The position has now been reversed, in the sense that the average public sector worker now receives £28,500 per year, and a final salary pension, while the average private sector worker receives £25,000 per year and greatly inferior pension arrangements.
Some people argue that these comparisons are not fair or relevant, and that the figures for average private sector pay are being pulled down by the many people on very low pay who work as cleaners or in other jobs that used to be within the state sector. That may be true, but it is still surely wrong that these low-paid taxpayers should be asked to pay for public sector workers to have final salary pension schemes that have been wiped out in the rest of the economy.
The TUC’s Brendan Barber has made an excellent point, that the Government should be focusing resources on getting young people into work, by supporting apprenticeships, work placements and training on the job. I completely agree – and I would point out to Brendan that this strike is being mounted, at a very tough time, by people who have jobs, and who want to protect a lop-sided pensions system; and that the logical consequence of their actions is that there would be less for investment in infrastructure, apprenticeships, and the creation of new employment for young people.
We are told that this strike is just the first, and that the union leaderships are planning a long and miserable Seventies-style “winter of discontent.” I very much hope that is not so – and so, to judge by their reluctance even to take part in the ballot, do many thousands of sensible union members.
It is time the Labour Party stopped prevaricating, and came out against the strike. They are the political arm of the unions, and it is from the unions that they receive 86 per cent of their funding. They could call it off tomorrow.
As Ed Miliband would surely recognise, it may be exciting for kids to go to the office, but they are better off being taught in school.