Ministers lose the argument on "unaffordable" pensions

Francis Maude flounders as he fails to defend the claim that public sector pensions are "unaffordabl

The first mass strikes since the general election are officially underway. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and three teaching unions - the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the University and College Union (UCU) - have all taken industrial action over planned changes to public sector pensions. A third of schools are expected to close, with another third "partially affected", and two-thirds of universities have cancelled lectures.

Ministers are generally bullish, holding the line that the public "won't understand" the strikes, but on at least one key point - the alleged "unaffordability" of public sector pensions - they've lost the argument this morning. Confronted by the formidably articulate PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka (recently interviewed by Mehdi for the NS) on the Today programme, Francis Maude floundered. Asked to justify the government's repeated claim that public sector pensions are "unaffordable" (David Cameron claimed that the system was in danger of going "broke" in his speech on Monday), the Cabinet Office minister simply couldn't. And he couldn't because the data tells a different story.

As the graph below from the government-commissioned Hutton Report shows, public sector pension payments peaked at 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2010-11 and will gradually fall over the next fifty years to 1.4 per cent in 2059-60. The government's plan to ask employees to work longer and pay more is a political choice, not an economic necessity.

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As the Public Accounts Committee observed: "Officials appeared to define affordability on the basis of public perception rather than judgement on the cost in relation to either GDP or total public spending." In other words, the public have been misled and ministers are determined to keep misleading them. Unable to justify the myth that public sector pensions are "unaffordable", the desperate Maude fell back on the claim that they are "untenable", without having the decency to explain why this was so.

Continuing the cynical attempt to set public and private sector workers against each other, Maude commented: "not very many people in the private sector can still enjoy pensions like that." True, two-thirds of private-sector employees are not enrolled in a workplace pension scheme, compared to just 12 per cent of public-sector workers. But this is an argument for improving provision in the private sector, not for driving it down in the public sector. Ministers appear determined to fire the starting gun on a race to the bottom.

We can debate the merits of industrial action as a form of protest. But with public sector workers facing a triple crunch - higher contributions, a tougher inflation index and lower benefits - it's hardly surprising that they feel compelled to defend their rights. Even before any of the Hutton reforms are introduced, George Osborne's decision to uprate benefits in line with CPI, rather than the RPI, has already reduced the value of some pensions by 15 per cent.

Strip away the government's rhetoric ("unaffordable", "untenable") and the truth is that ministers are forcing workers to take another pay cut, forcing them to pick up the tab for a crisis that they did not cause. The public might be on the side of ministers, for now at least, but the facts are on the side of the unions.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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