A friend of mine used to own what he called a ‘magic basket’. He was very proud of this magic basket which was in his bedroom. At the end of each day he would put his shirt in this magic basket and, the next time he saw it, it would be cleaned and ironed and hanging up in his wardrobe – all by itself.
Of course this was all in jest. His wife washed and ironed his shirts for him. But I was reminded of this tale by the latest attack on the public sector workers – of which I am one - whose work, like my friend's wife, is mostly unseen.
The media lead the way with regular reports on how many public sector workers there are, although for a nation of 60 million there are not that many, and then casts doubt on what they actually do. People will believe this thinking that we all get generous pensions and salaries and that we all sit with our feet up all day. Meanwhile, roads magically mend themselves, benefits are mysteriously paid, and children venture into schools and come out strangely knowing things they didn’t know before.
Public sector workers are very easy to attack – because people simply don’t see what they do, nor do they realise how many jobs (e.g. nurses, teachers, librarians) are actually part of the public sector. So when a government decides to hit ‘the public sector’ they get glorious approval from the media and much of the population. ‘We pay your wages’ is an expression that every public sector worker has heard countless times.
This is not to say the public sector is perfect. There are too many quangos and, especially, too many people earning too much money. Reforms are certainly necessary. But when the sector is attacked in this way, it is not those at the top who suffer but always the vast majority at the lower end of the scales.
Now the latest attack comes from the coalition government in terms of hitting pensions. The plan is to increase workers contributions to the pension scheme and increase the retirement age. This is on top of a three year pay freeze (which would be OK if there was also a freeze on food prices, fuel costs and travel commuter fares) and also a recruitment freeze, which makes sense in some cases, but is so inflexible that it often means one person doing the work of two or three people.
The result will be to force people out of the pension scheme because they can’t afford the contributions. This would reduce employer contributions but leave many facing an uncertain future. This won’t of course affect the overloaded top end of the sector who can afford to make alternative provisions.
At this point, I should correct two myths. Pensions in the public sector are certainly no more generous than the private sector, and there is no more job security – as dozens of my former colleagues made redundant can vouch for.
I have great respect for Vince Cable and Danny Alexander, two talented Liberal Democrats who have much to offer the party and the country, but on this occasion I think they are wrong, and I hope they have the good sense to retract these intentions and hold talks instead of threatening and frightening people. I am sad to say this threatens to un-do much of the other good work our party has done in government. And if I hear Vince threaten the bankers one more time instead of actually doing something …
Of course the unions sometimes don’t help themselves. Talk of ‘the biggest strike action since the general strike’ just winds people up – nor does it help when unions such as the RMT hold regular strikes on the underground for the most obscure reasons. I hope there will be common sense on both sides in this dispute.
Yes, the last government left the country with a massive deficit and an economic crisis. No-one can deny that. The last Labour administration expanded the public sector far beyond what is justifiable. Cuts and reforms are necessary and times will continue to be tough. But I cannot agree with the attack on the pension rights of the lower paid workers within the public sector on top of the changes that have already been made over the last year. I find it at odds with our belief in fairness.
Although I find it hard to say, if the government carries out its threats, if I am on the opposing side to a government of which my party is a part, if my union asks me to vote for industrial action - then I will be voting Yes.