Why we plan to strike on 30 November

Raising pension contributions is a hardship tax on public sector workers to pay down the deficit.

A man walks past a sign held by striking public sector workers on June 30, 2011
Source: Getty Images

Millions of public sector workers are gearing up for the biggest strike in living memory. Government ministers have pushed paramedics, teaching assistants, dinner ladies, nurses and social workers into taking action with their unprecedented attack on pensions.

We are strong, united and determined in our action - and we know we can count on the wider Labour movement for support. UNISON has said from the start that we want to reach a negotiated settlement, and that still stands. UNISON is willing to take part in scheme specific talks, right up until 30 November and beyond - we want a firm offer.

Our members voted decisively for action, but it's not a decision that they took lightly. Most UNISON members are low paid women in the caring professions. They go to work day in, day out, to make their communities better places in which to live and work. Indeed, with pay frozen at a time of stubbornly high inflation, and with Christmas just round the corner, they can ill afford to lose a day's wages. Their vote shows the colour of their anger over ministers' pensions plans to make them work longer and pay more, all for less in their retirement, coming on on top of heavy job and service cuts.

Public sector workers have already been stung by promises made in Parliament that were never delivered. In his first Emergency Budget, George Osborne promised public sector workers earning less than £21,000 a £250 pay boost - easing the pain of the pay freeze. But for low paid local government workers, this money has never materialised. They've been stuck on the pay freeze for two years, which could stretch to three, stretching family budgets to the limit.

There is no public sector pensions crisis - only four years ago, unions negotiated new schemes to make them affordable and sustainable for the long term. The schemes include a cap and share arrangement in health, so that any increase in costs would have to be borne by employees. The reforms also included a higher retirement age of 65, and other measures including higher contributions from members of between 5 and 8%.

These reforms have meant that the cost of public sector pensions, as a proportion of GDP, will fall, costs have been reduced even more by the switch to using CPI rather than RPI to calculate the annual increase in pensions payments. Both the health and local government schemes are in good shape, with billions more coming in than has to be paid out in pensions every year. The local government scheme also provides a huge boost to the private sector, its funds are worth £140 billion, and own 1.75% of the UK's top FTSE companies.

Under the proposals, the low paid will receive only just enough to keep them above the threshold for means tested benefits when they do retire. The average pension in local government is £3,800 a year, but for women, it's less than £2,800 - just £56 a week. More than half of women pensioners in the NHS receive a pension of less than £3,500 a year.

The real scandal is that two-thirds of private sector workers do not get a single penny from their employers towards their pension, whilst top bosses award themselves generous pensions. It is in no one's interest to see workers in the public or private sector living in poverty and relying on state benefits when they retire - that is just storing up more trouble for the future.

We do not believe a penny of the money raised will go towards pensions - it's nothing but a hardship tax on public sector workers to pay down the deficit. The way to rebuild our economy is not to take more money out of hardworking people's pockets. The austerity agenda is killing growth, boosting unemployment - fuelling the downturn. Our members are striking for their pensions - but their campaign for a fairer economic plan, founded in social democratic principles, will continue long after we reach a deal.

Dave Prentis is the general secretary of UNISON

Getty
Show Hide image

The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496