The state is "doing a Robert Maxwell" on doctors' pensions

What difference does it make if you or I think that doctors get paid too little or too much? They had an agreement.

Last month I re-read Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. A meaningless gesture to an author, sadly, now gone. I always remember being annoyed and confused as a child, reading the bit where Max joins the eponymous Wild Things in mindlessly destroying their own homes in a “wild rumpus”. The casual irrationality still makes no sense to me.

I find myself harbouring similar frustrations watching the debate over the doctors’ industrial action today. Conservative MPs, one after the other, condemned the strike in the strongest and least constructive terms. Maybe you have sympathy with their arguments; maybe you think doctors have a pretty cushy deal. Conversely, perhaps you think there is something to the notion that a vocation the skills for which take many years to attain, which involves long hours and difficult conditions, ought to be well rewarded.

Whatever your position, there is one argument which is almost never articulated. And it is, strangely enough, an argument which is absolutely vital to the system those same right-wing advocates support. It is this: Doctors have an agreement on their pensions; a freely entered into bargain with the nation’s largest employer – the state.

When I graduated, I had options. Career paths which led to expensive cars and summer homes in the South of France gleamed ahead of me. I chose instead to join the Civil Service, knowing that my earnings would always hover between 30 per cent -50 per cent lower than someone of equivalent experience in the private sector. I did so, partly because I knew I would find the work more fulfilling, but partly because I took stock of the environment within which I would function, the relative job security and, yes, the relatively generous pension scheme.

After a change of career, I am happily not in a position where 20 years later, having fulfilled more than half of my part of bargain, my employer can turn around and unilaterally change the terms of the agreement. But make no mistake – this is precisely what is happening to doctors. The state is effectively "doing a Robert Maxwell". Doctors are being screwed out of something that they thought had been agreed and was kept safely aside for their old age. And they have every right to bitch about it.

The contract is the cornerstone of free-market capitalism. Those eroding its solidity at the state level are engaging in an act of utter folly. The very same people who claim to be advocates of entrepreneurship and small business, are reducing the ground on which those concepts are built to quicksand. How would small businesses feel if their customers, after a product or a service had been supplied, turned around and said "I think I agreed to too high a price, times are hard, I’ll just pay you half and there is nothing you can do about it"?

Nothing exempts the state from being responsible for its contractual obligations. There is no excuse for those who tout “market confidence” as a vital goal to claim that the basic principle which underpins it, does not apply to them. There is no intellectual consistency in arguing one day that one should not interfere with corporate salaries and bonuses because these Captains of Industry possess rarefied skills, while devaluing the skill of the person who can restart your heart after it has stopped.

What difference does it make if you or I think that doctors get paid too little or too much? They had an agreement – same as you do with your employer, with the garage that fixed your car, with the travel agency through which you booked your holiday. The fact that their agreement is huge and involves tens of thousands of employees should make it more, not less sacrosanct.

Now, there may be intervening reasons which make the breach inevitable. There may be mysterious forces majeures, which mean there is no money in the coffer for doctors, while there is for cutting the top rate of tax. But such a position needs to be fully explained.

And any renegotiation of such contracts must start with a full admission that the state got it wrong and a plea for doctors’ understanding. Rather than an arrogant shrug of the shoulders and a cynical attempt to make people fighting for what is legally theirs look bad in the press. A change of administration does not vitiate the state’s contractual responsibilities.

So, those Wild Things peddling their views from television studios to Whitehall lawns, need to take a step back and assess, truly assess, the effects of their attitude on future recruitment, on consumer spending, on market confidence and on the free-market capitalism which they worship. Truly assess the consequences of their position. Because their true position is that a contract with the UK’s biggest employer, biggest buyer of goods, biggest procurer of services, is not worth the paper on which it is written.

Doctors. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.