A Week in Politics – Strikes, Reforms and the Media

By John Spence

So, the June 30th strike is over.  Both sides believe they won out, as you’d expect.  I expect other articles on this site will cover the efficacy of the action over the coming days.  What I’ve been interested in this week is the media game surrounding the strike, both over the past seven days and, for the sake of context, over the life of the Coalition.

As Martin Luther King Jr. had it, many politicians “…gain prominence and power by the dissemination of false ideas, and by deliberately appealing to the deepest hate responses within the human mind.”

What I hope to do below is sift through the various squawkings and polemics and establish, if not ‘truth’, (because what is that in this situation?) then at least identify some of the half-truths surrounding pensions reform, union activity and the questions that emerge from the debate that require answers.

Tim Montgomerie, over at ConservativeHome presented three of the early right-wing attacks of the week.

Predictably, the Sun went nauseatingly overboard with their ‘Stop The Summer of Hate’ Campaign; a typically trashy response from the Murdoch press’ key outlet that denigrates the journalistic profession.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance, meanwhile, published a list of 37 trade union leaders earning six figure salaries.  Perhaps the demands of attacking the strike meant that the TPA couldn’t cover the RMT’s attack on the 379 managers employed by the Boris Johnson-controlled Transport for London who took home over £100,000 last year, up from 251.  It couldn’t be that the supposedly ‘non-partisan’ TPA would have Tory sympathies would it?  Surely not…

Tory MP for Esher and Walton Dominic Raab opened up a new front on the right’s attack on the unions.  His piece in the Telegraph claimed that, “Taxpayers should be shocked to learn, then, that they are funding union activities on a major scale… At a time of financial strain on the criminal justice system, the Ministry of Justice spent more than £6 million on staff working full- or part-time on union activities in 2008/9 – the equivalent of more than 150 prison places. It is also the only major department that has failed to disclose its union bill for the past two years.”

Now, I’m not sure how shocked Mr. Raab expects ‘taxpayers’ (who include public sector workers, despite what the Tory narrative would have people believe) should be about their ‘funding of union activities.  After all, it’s widely known that around 60% of public sector workers are union members; therefore, by Raab’s definitions, large sums of taxpayers’ money already goes to the unions through public sector subscriptions – indeed this sum will probably far exceed the other ‘perks’ the unions receive, which Raab complains about.

Further, he seems to fail to grasp that most union representatives do actually happen to work in the ‘shops’ of the members they represent, and that existing long-standing agreements are in place that allows elected shop stewards to conduct union business on a limited amount of employers’ time every year.  Once upon a time, this was considered a fair arrangement – no more it seems.

Raab’s screed was merely clueless.  Other reports were something else entirely.  In perhaps the most disgraceful piece of ‘reportage’ on the strike the Daily Mail attempted to place blame on the strikers for the tragic death of a teenager.  I am not going to give this report any further attention; however it, and the rest of the reports above, serve to highlight how stringently the right are in attempting to draw dividing lines between unionised public sector workers and those who seek to bring union activity into wider public disrepute.

On Thursday, however, Evan Davis on the Today programme had Francis Maude on the ropes over claims that the Hutton Report has found that the public sector pensions system, as it is, is ‘unaffordable’ and ‘untenable’, following up his mauling of Treasury minister Justine Greening the day before.

A transcript of the key exchanges can be found here, but what is interesting, on further analysis, is that both Evan Davis and Francis Maude can be considered to be in the wrong.

The PM did indeed say the pensions system is ‘in danger of going broke’, and as far back as June last year, pre-dating even the appointment of John Hutton to investigate pensions reform, Nick Clegg stated that the current public sector pensions system was ‘unaffordable’. The charge of non affordability has since been disproven by the Hutton Report itself and several other commentators and thinktanks.

However, Davis’ claim that ‘untenable’ does not appear in the Hutton Report is of limited truth.  His ‘Control-F’ search is correct – the word ‘tenable’ doesn’t appear in the final draft of the Hutton Report.  However, it does appear on page 3 of the interim report published last November and, more crucially, in the press release accompanying the final report, where Hutton is quoted as saying, “The current model of public service pension provision is clearly not tenable in the long-term. There is a clear need for reform.”

So Maude was correct to assert that, according to the report’s author, current pension provision is untenable.  But what of his claim that despite the GDP figure going down, the cost to the taxpayer is going up? I’m not inclined to follow Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman’s belief that Maude forgot or had never seen the GDP table Evan Davis confronted him with.

On page 29 of the final Hutton Report, it states, “Relative to its Budget forecasts, the OBR expects a somewhat smaller reduction in the number of public sector workers (falling to 5.17 million in 2014-15) and a somewhat smaller gap between RPI and CPI inflation. Both of these factors could be expected to increase long-term public service pension spending, but they are partially offset by expectations of slightly higher GDP growth in the medium term. Overall, the Commission assesses that the changed projections suggest a modest increase in long-term public service pension expenditure as a proportion of GDP…” (my emphasis)

This would appear to back up Maude’s claim that taxpayer expenditure would increase – or rather it would if one were to ignore the last sentence of the paragraph, which reads: “…but this does not imply any substantial alteration to the conclusions reached in the interim report, as shown in Chart 1.B.”, Chart 1.B. being the graph showing pensions expenditure as a percentage of GDP peaking last year and falling throughout the remainder of the forecast.  So, it could be argued that Maude was also presenting a half-truth.

Chart 1.B (Source: GAD projections for IPSPC and IPSPC analysis/Hutton Report March 2011)

Further, what Maude appears to be predicating his argument on is that even if the cost of public sector pensions as a percentage of GDP does go down, because there will be fewer people of working age compared with people of retirement age, then the cost on a per taxpayer basis will increase, which does make a kind of sense.

All this serves to do, however, is call into question the value of such long term predictions, both in terms of the GDP predictions and Maude’s defence; after all, charges of fewer workers supporting too many pensioners in the future appear to ignore, for example, the UK’s decade long ‘baby boom’ which presumably will ramp up the workforce in coming years – provided there are jobs for them to go to, of course!

Trying to ascertain head nor tail of the true situation through the fog of the media war is, to quote Shaun Ryder, twistin’ me melon, man.

(c) Plashing Vole

There’s just enough space for some brief comments on Ed Miliband’s performance this week.  He has been criticised for not doing enough to support the strikers.  While I’m sympathetic to those views, for Labour members and supporters to attack him is to miss an important political point.

It’s fair to say that Ed isn’t blessed with a huge amount of political capital; therefore it makes absolutely no sense, from his perspective and that of his advisors, to spend some of what he has for strikes taking place before negotiations are complete, especially when the unions striking aren’t Labour Party affiliates.  The acid test for him will come if and when the likes of Unite and Unison ballot for strikes should negotiations fail.

And it’s to be hoped by then his media team will have pulled their heads from their posteriors and developed a new strategy for getting soundbites across.  His repetitive interview with a pool TV correspondent made him look a prize arse; however, it’s his advisers that deserve the brickbats, given that George Osborne was caught doing exactly the same thing last October.  They should have seen that incident and ensured it would never happen to their man, because in using the same boneheaded strategy, they have undermined what has been a relatively positive past fortnight for Ed.

But such faux pas will be small beer to the problems he’ll have if he fails to step up for the affiliated unions when they need him.

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