Labour's preferred attack on pensions is going nowhere

The hated 3 per cent charge hidden in last year's spending review is non-negotiable and unions know

Coming as it does the day after George Osborne's Autumn Statement on the economy, today's strike by public sector workers feels in many respects like a broad rejection of the government's entire austerity agenda. That feeling is exaggerated by the Chancellor's decision yesterday to pay for some of his growth-boosting plans by capping public sector wages. Even if inflation falls back from its current high levels that will feel like a cut. The move will be widely interpreted by strikers as a provocation.

There is, of course, a specific dispute at the heart of today's action - the government's proposals to reform public sector pensions. There is also, within that specific dispute, a detail that is often lost in reporting, which is the distinction between reforms set out in the report by Lord Hutton, subsequently watered down in negotiations, and changes introduced in last autumn's spending review. The Hutton proposals are the basis of the deal that has been offered to -- and rejected by -- unions. But many public sector workers are just as aggrieved by a mandatory surcharge on their employee pension contributions averaging 3.2 per cent that was in the small print of the spending review. That was seen by many as a pre-emptive attack on pensions rushed through before negotiations on a long-term settlement even got under way.

Labour is keen to emphasise the surcharge for precisely that reason. It was imposed by the Treasury without discussion and looks and feels like a smash-and-grab raid. There is some disappointment at the top of the party that unions have not pushed this point further. But privately unions say they see no point going after the 3 per cent charge as they know this is a battle they cannot win. They are right. I was told recently by a cabinet minister with good knowledge of the pension negotiations with unions that the surcharge is non-negotiable. It isn't even on the table. That is precisely because it is contained in the spending review. That document has acquired hallowed status in the government - it is the agreement on which the coalition's whole commitment to fiscal discipline is based. Ministers from both governing parties see it as the measure that, more than anything else, bought the country long-term respite from any pressure from financial markets that have punished other indebted governments in Europe. (Whether or not this is a real danger -- or was a danger in autumn last year -- is an entirely different point.) The fact is, whatever disputes might arise within the coalition, there is absolute agreement that the spending review is closed and must not be re-opened. It is the emblem of fiscal credibility.

There is also, I suspect, a certain psychological element in play here. Negotiating the spending review was an early test of the coalition's staying power. It came at a time when many people still thought it implausible that Lib Dems and Tories could realistically stay in government together for long. The fact that it happened at all has created a certain esprit de corps in the quad - the coalition steering committee of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander. They all know that revisiting the spending review would sabotage the political solidarity that is the glue holding the coalition together.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.