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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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR