Four questions Osborne must answer before introducing regional pay

Why has the Chancellor jumped the gun of an independent review?

Why has the Chancellor jumped the gun of an independent review?

The budget leak about introducing more localised pay-setting for civil servants in a number of government departments is not a great surprise. The Treasury has been toying with regional pay issues since the IFS reported that earnings are 10 per cent higher for men and 15 per cent for women in the public sector in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

What is surprising is that such an announcement should pre-empt the findings of the Independent Pay Review Bodies' review, commissioned by Mr Osborne, which is due in July. If the Chancellor is to jump the gun in this way then he needs to address four big questions.

1) Is there evidence that public sector pay rates have a direct effect on private sector wages and job creation in regional economies?

While few dispute evidence of a pay gap, changing the current system would appear to be based upon the principal assertion that high public sector pay rates in weaker local economies are making it difficult for private sector companies to recruit staff. It is not difficult to find disgruntled employers who are prepared to endorse this line of thinking but policy by anecdote is a dangerous business and there is no substantive evidence that this is the case.

What limited evidence there is on the impact of public-private pay gaps - an LSE report on the impact of pay differentials on hospital performance - highlights pay effects on depressing performance in high wage areas, but this is an altogether different argument.

2) Will the pay gap will close without further government intervention?

In his first budget as Chancellor, George Osborne announced a public sector pay freeze which he has subsequently extended to last over three years. In preliminary analysis carried out by IPPR North, this in itself would appear to be sufficient to close the gap by 2015. If the government needs to embolden its approach then it must provide evidence that additional measures are needed above and beyond the pay freeze already announced.

3) Has the Chancellor screened out a raft of unintended consequences?

Perhaps the greatest concern about reducing public sector pay is the risk of depressing weaker economies still further. The government's argument that public sector jobs were crowding out the private sector is looking increasingly flawed as Northern economies experience a double dip jobs recession and unemployment touches 10 per cent across the North.

In fact, public sector cuts have hit the public and the private economy hard and what is needed is stimulus not further constraint. Furthermore, squeezing pay risks a race to the bottom which ultimately undermines productivity and reduces the competitivity of Northern economies exacerbating the North-South divide.

4) If localising pay is such a good idea, then why are private companies doing the reverse?

In one of the more interesting interventions on this debate, the Incomes Data Services have produced a report looking at the use of regional and local pay by the private sector. They find that the only real regional pay variations that exist are between London and the South East and the rest of the country.

Furthermore, aside from housing costs in the Greater South East, the cost of living across the country is converging. For this reason, most large national and multi-national private sector companies are moving away from complex regional, zonal and local pay structures which breed resentment and reduce productivity, in favour of simpler systems which top-up London pay.

If the Chancellor is serious about stimulating growth in less prosperous places then perhaps he should look to grow investment and productivity outside London rather than precipitate a race to the bottom in places that are poor enough already.

Ed Cox is Director of IPPR North

Ed Cox is Director at IPPR North. He tweets @edcox_ippr.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.