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21 January 2010

The right’s “politics of envy“

The relentless and flawed attacks on public-sector pay

By Mehdi Hasan

“Record gap between public and private sector pay” is the headline on the Telegraph front page. In the piece, Harry Wallop (great name!) claims:

Workers in the public sector are now being paid more than £2,000 extra a year compared with employees in the private sector, after public-sector pay continued to race ahead of inflation.

The average public-sector worker was paid £23,660 a year, compared with private-sector workers who were paid £21,528 a year, in the three months to the end of November.

This is the first time that the gap, which has slowly widened under the Labour government, has hit more than £2,000 and came as figures showed that the discrepancy between pay increases in the public and private sector had never been so wide.

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Two immediate responses come to mind. The first is: so? I thought we’re not supposed to care about people’s salaries. Why the sudden envy in the right-wing press? Or is this the right’s own version of the “politics of envy“?

The second is: it’s a wholly inaccurate and flawed picture. Why? Polly Toynbee spelled out the facts back in July 2009:

Steve Tatton of Incomes Data Services (IDS), the pay monitor, finds virtually every category of public-sector worker would be better paid if they worked in the same job in the private sector. Cabinet Office figures for senior civil servants show a grade 5 deputy director gets 22 per cent less than their equivalent manager in the private sector. A grade 2 director general, one step below permanent secretary, gets 64 per cent less than their private-sector opposite number.

Then there is the issue of the “lowest-paid”, which the Telegraph and others conveniently omit to report. Toynbee writes:

Most public-sector manual work has been outsourced to private companies and agencies: the few cleaners and security guards who stayed public are paid better — and a good thing too. Most people in the public sector are considerably more skilled than the average private-sector employee, which is what makes nonsense of any crude figures that add up the pay of each sector and divide the total by the number of employees, regardless of what jobs people do.

She also offers a brief but necessary history lesson:

Here is the history of pay rates, according to Alistair Hatchett of IDS. Between 1993 and 1999 the public workforce was squeezed and downgraded: there were severe shortages, as always happens if pay falls too far behind the world outside. There was a good catch-up between 2000 and 2004: nurses and teachers were recruited and pay rose. But from 2005 until now, pay was cut back again: 2 per cent across the board was the rule. Last year when inflation was 4 per cent the public sector got 2.5 per cent.

So don’t be deceived by the brief turnaround in the figures for the last few exceptional months of the crash, when for a short time the public sector has pulled fractionally ahead with 3.6 per cent, still reflecting last year’s inflation, while a third of the private sector has had freezes — especially in manufacturing.

Ben Goldacre, in his “Bad Science” column earlier this month, makes an argument similar to Toynbee’s, in response to an equally hysterical and flawed report in the Sunday Times:

The long-standing difference in median wage for all jobs in each sector is hardly informative on the question of whether someone is paid more or less than their peer in the other sector. It’s hard to decide what the comparison job is for a policeman, a firefighter, a teacher, and so on, and to make that comparison between medians meaningful you’d need data showing the breakdown of what kinds of jobs are done in each sector. Because it’s possible, after all, that the state employs more people in more senior or middling roles, and fewer people in the kinds of jobs you find at the absolute bottom of the employment ladder.

For an illustration, we can poke around the ONS ASHE data again. The national median hourly wage is £11.03. If you take table 14_5a of the 2009 data, reorder it by wage, and look at the bottom three categories with over one million people in them, as a rough illustration, we have: 1,126,000 sales and retail assistants on a median hourly wage of £6.36; 1,355,000 cashiers at £6.40; 1,430,000 in sales at £6.45.

None of these are jobs you find in the public sector, although there are also cleaners at the low-wage end of this table. If someone here was quoting data comparing public to private wages for the same kind of cleaning jobs, say, then that would be interesting. There’s no such data on offer.

So why are the right-wing press, and the right-wing think tanks, and the right-wing politicians (that is to say, the compassionate Cameroonian Conservatives) so concerned about public pay and the mythical divide with the private sector? Why are they so keen for public-sector workers to suffer because private-sector workers happen to be suffering? It can only be the right’s own “politics of envy”. How pathetic, self-centred and inexcusable.