Policy Exchange is wrong on public-sector pay

It is misleading to compare private- with public-sector pay -- it’s not a like-for-like comparison.

Policy Exchange has a new report out today on the public sector, and while it has tidied up its stats a little -- given the hammering that dodgy stats on the public sector have got in the past -- what the report says is still pretty misleading.

For Policy Exchange and the shrink-the-state right, every nurse, every doctor, every teacher is a drag on the economy. The rest of us know that they all play a vital role -- as do countless other public servants. Far from holding back the private sector, the public sector educates and trains its workforce, buys many of its goods and services, keeps its staff healthy and provides the infrastructure without which the UK would travel back to the 19th century.

Policy Exchange wants people to believe that public-sector wages have overtaken those in the private sector. This is simply not the case. In every year since 1984 -- the earliest year for which official statistics are available -- average hourly pay in the public sector has been higher than in the private sector. But this is because the public sector has a much greater proportion of skilled and professional workers such as teachers and doctors than the private sector.

In recent years this trend has intensified. Lower-paid jobs such as cleaners and care assistants have been privatised, while the big growth in public-sector employment under the last government was among professionals such as teachers and doctors.

To compare pay properly, you have to look at people doing similar jobs, but this is impossible, as jobs differ too much. However, you can compare the pay of people with similar qualifications. This shows that graduates earn somewhat less in the public sector while those with no qualifications earn a bit more. This is because the gap between those at the bottom and those at the top in the public sector is smaller than in the private sector. Most people would think this is a good thing.

Of course, they cannot resist citing higher levels of absence in the public sector, even though public-sector staff are more likely to work when they are ill.

And it takes chutzpah to report accurately the collapse in private-sector pension provision for most private-sector workers -- despite the retention of diamond-encrusted, platinum-plated pensions in Britain's top boardrooms -- as a reason for attacking public-sector pensions.

It would be equally logical to say that if public-sector workplaces were more dangerous than those in the private sector, this should be evened up until as many people were killed at work each year in the public sector.

Under the guise of all-round fairness, Policy Exchange seems to want to bring the worst kind of vulnerable, low-paid, no-rights employment into the public sector. We think that is a very strange notion of fairness.

Nigel Stanley is the TUC's head of campaigns and communications.

This blog is cross-posted from Touchstone.

Nigel Stanley is the head of communications at the TUC. He blogs at ToUChstone.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.