Who really holds the country to ransom?

Younger readers may not even know the phrase, but unions that threatened strike action were once routinely accused of "holding the public to ransom". The occasion for a recent rare outing of the cliché (by the head of the TaxPayers' Alliance) was Unison's ballot of 600,000 council workers who rejected a 2.45 per cent pay increase and could take strike action next month.

Those voting to raid the purses of the poor taxpayer included benefit staff, refuse workers, school canteen staff, teaching assistants and cleaners - some of the lowest-paid workers in the land, as Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, argues on our website this week. Higher-paid (but by no means highly paid) local authority employees such as architects, surveyors and social workers may strike, too, but as many as 250,000 of those balloted earn less than £6.50 an hour. Of these, 75 per cent are women and we can be sure that a good many of these wicked "holders to ransom" need tax credits to bring their wages up to a level deemed sufficient to live on (contrary to the pompous claim in a Financial Times leader that "public-sector pay is already high enough"). Thus, a single-parent council worker on such a pay rate, with one school-aged child and needing a couple of hours' cheap childcare a day, would at current pay levels be entitled to roughly £5,000 in Working Tax Credit a year. Does it make sense that workers employed by one arm of government are paid so poorly that they need handouts from another arm of the state simply to reach a government-set standard of living?

Of course it does not. But that hasn't stopped ministers wheeling out further old clichés of summers of discontent, wild-cat strikes and inflationary spirals (as if a 50p-per-hour improvement to the wages of refuse collectors could match the impact on inflation of escalating food and oil prices). The chasm between government rhetoric and reality could hardly be wider. We have had ministerial platitudes about the deep insecurity that rapidly rising prices visit on all workers, but nothing from the Treasury or Prime Minister on the disproportionate impact the increased cost of food and energy has on the poorest. We have had no calls for restraint to City financiers who this year have paid themselves bonuses of £13.8bn.

Hyperinflation is already a reality for most of us, whether or not council workers go on strike for a living wage: food prices are up 9 per cent from last year; domestic energy bills 10 per cent; petrol 20 per cent; and the million or so people soon coming off two-year fixed-rate mortgages will be subject to major increases in housing costs. In addition, the value of the pound has fallen by 14 per cent, increasing the cost of imports and prices in the shops. If, on top of all that, millions of workers lose purchasing power by below-inflation wage settlements, we will quickly be in a recession.

In such circumstances, is it realistic, or even morally acceptable, to call on the lowest-paid not to defend their families' living standards? There is no shortage of rich people in Britain who could exercise wage restraint. Public-sector workers cannot and, while bankers and hedge-fund speculators go unchallenged, who has the moral authority to ask them to?

Gordon Brown celebrates his year as Prime Minister with a personal rating as low as it has ever been and in a cold economic climate. We believe he can fight back and we particularly applaud that he is to make a "national crusade" of improving social mobility, which had stalled under new Labour. Public-sector workers are an important target group for such a project.

Tony Blair continued a Tory tradition of disdain for public servants such as teachers, social workers and probation officers. Brown must break with it. Fighting them will not win him votes from the middle ground, because anything he can do on that front, the Tories will always do better. George Osborne has already made it clear that his response to strike threats will be tougher trade union legislation.

For the past decade, the country has been held to ransom, with Labour's blessing, by the richest in society. That is why an appeal to those seeking only a living wage to act for the greater good sounds hollow indeed.

Myths, mischief and memory

Using astronomical clues in Homer's Odyssey, two scientists have pinned down the exact date when Odysseus returned to Ithaca and, under cover of darkness, slaughtered the suitors who had been bothering his wife, Penelope, during his long absence. The total solar eclipse that helped Odysseus despatch his rivals, say Marcelo Magnasco of the Rockefeller University in New York and Constantino Baikouzis of the La Plata Astronomical Observatory in Argentina, took place on 16 April 1178 BC, just before lunchtime.

"If we take it that the deaths of the suitors happened on this particular eclipse date . . . everything else described in the Odyssey happens exactly as is described," says Magnasco. If he over-eggs the veracity of Homer's account slightly, the discovery still supports those who believe our treasured myths and legends are too good to be mere fairy tales; that the facts on which they are based must be out there, somewhere.

How heartening if excavations at King Alfred's private lodgings in Winchester unearthed recipes suggesting that, even if he didn't burn the cakes, Alfred was at least fond of cooking them. Or if humanoid implements found lodged in the columns of the Giant's Causeway pointed to the presence of ancient Irish builders.

Let no one suggest that Loki, the Norse god of mischief, is at work here. Myths are a storehouse of mankind's memory. Rejoice if these delightful stories prove more truthful than we could ever have imagined.

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This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug