Why we are right to strike

There will be more to come if the government doesn't start meeting the needs of ordinary people.

Two days before the largest strike in a generation, I addressed a packed hall of trade union members in Glasgow. They were united and determined to resist this government's raid on their pensions - and that was before they'd heard George Osborne's autumn statement.

Perhaps one prescient member had been given a sneak preview, since she told me: "If we don't stand up for pensions today, they'll come for our pay or our jobs tomorrow."

Public-sector workers face working longer and paying more to get a smaller pension, despite their existing arrangements being entirely affordable and sustainable. The proposed increase in pension contributions is a tax on working in the public sector - all going to the Treasury, not a penny towards improving pensions. It's robbery.

Workers are in the second year of a pay freeze - years that have coincided with rampant inflation. They now face two further years of below-inflation pay rises, at the end of which their living standards will be 15 to 20 per cent lower.

The government replies that many private-sector workers have suffered pay freezes and lost their pensions. My union has nearly 30,000 private-sector members, but we've never argued for an equality of misery. The government would like us to compare public- and private-sector workers in some sort of depraved competition for the worst lot, to distract us from the vast gap between what is imposed on ordinary workers and how a tiny elite at the top carries on.

The differences between public and private are overplayed: the average public-sector pension is £5,600, while for private-sector workers in defined benefit schemes the average is £5,800 - roughly the same modest amount. But while 85 per cent of public-sector workers are in defined benefit schemes, only 11 per cent of private-sector workers are.

Wilful greed

That scandalously low figure in the private sector is a result of the wilful greed of top directors, who have closed pension schemes while protecting their own nest eggs. These directors have an average pension of £175,000 per year and last year their pay increased by 49 per cent, on average.

All of us pay for that private-sector greed through higher prices in the shops, higher bills, higher fares and by missing out on tax revenues as many wealthy individuals and big business hide their money away offshore - an option not available to ordinary taxpayers - but which costs us all £120bn a year in lost revenues.

This cosseted elite, including many of the current Cabinet, have never had to worry about paying the bills, going into arrears on their rent or mortgage, or even having to choose - as many pensioners will this winter - between adequately heating or eating.

The day before the strike, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimated that public-sector employment will fall by 710,000. In the past three months alone, civil servants have seen 24,000 of their fellow workers leave. This is damaging public services from borders to tax collection. Even in the so-called "protected" areas, such as the NHS, 26,000 staff have been forced out in the past quarter.

With falling living standards, the prospect of an impoverished retirement and their own jobs increasingly under threat, public-sector workers are understandably angry. As in any confrontation, some have wanted to keep their heads down and hope it doesn't affect them but there is an increasing realisation that we need to unite and stand up to this bullying government.

On picket lines and in marches and rallies across the country, that is being demonstrated. If the government does not change course and start meeting the needs of ordinary people, more and escalating strike action, occupations and protests will be inevitable in 2012.

Growth strategy

A BBC opinion poll just before the strike showed 61 per cent thought it was justified, while only 36 per cent disagreed. Why should that be? There is a growing awareness that the wrong people are being made to pay for a crisis they had no role in creating. That same poll showed only 28 per cent believed the government is handling the economy well; 67 per cent disagreed.

People are rightly asking why the government is slashing over £20bn from welfare and imposing £9,000 fees on students, when it can afford to give away £25bn in business tax breaks? Why public-sector pensions are now unaffordable yet nuclear weapons a necessity? Why young people get six months in jail for stealing bottled water, while big business can avoid paying billions in taxes with impunity?

There is a creeping sense of injustice and a realisation that the government is on the side of its fellow millionaires. But there's also something positive going on: solidarity - a further awareness that, underneath the millionaire cabinet and its City friends, we are all in this together.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times