Just had a head-to-head with the Tory commentator Dominic Lawson on the Jeremy Vine show: discussing the public sector pensions strike. He proposes that the problem is not the governmentâ€™s attack on the public sector and its pensions it is the relationship between the â€˜havesâ€™Â Â and the â€˜have-notsâ€™. No, this is not a Tory lamenting the cruel gap between rich and poor, it is a Tory deflecting attention away from the cruel inequalities in the private sector:
Lawsonâ€™s argument was reiterated by Tory minister David Willetts on Radio 4â€™s The World at One. It shows a remarkable sway of denial. It is the wrong inference from an irrelevant comparison.
The public sector is not to blame for rubbish private sector pensions, it is not to blame for private employersâ€™ abandonment of employersâ€™ contribution to private sector pensions; nor is it to blame for the relentless march of inequality over the last 30 years â€“ synchronising exactly with the rise and rise of neo-liberalism in the global economy.
The Britain bequeathed by the neo-liberal thrall is one of the most unequal societies in Europe â€“ since 1980 workersâ€™ share of the national income has declined from 45 per cent to 157 per cent.
There is an unspoken, inchoate resentment shadowing the resentment of the public sector and indeed the values of public service: it is called misogyny. Sixty-five per cent of public sector workers are women.
They arenâ€™t to blame for the 25 per cent that was wiped off private pensions by the credit crunch, according to Ros Altman, director of Saga:Â http://www.rosaltmann.com/independent_metlife_may09.htm
Nor are they to blame for the five years worth of contributions estimated by PriceWaterhouse Coopers to have been wiped off during the 2011 summer stock market crash.
There is a semantic â€˜surgeâ€™ being mobilised by the deniers: a vocabulary borrowed from the language of class and privilege in Britain is being mobilised against public service. Tories now cite the private sector, hailed for three decades as the paragon of economic virtue, as a victim.
But pensions expert Ros Altman reminds who is the private sector pensions banker â€“ it isnâ€™t the public:
â€˜The idea that equity markets might not deliver over the long term was never seriously entertained by policymakers. Nobody explained to workers that they were effectively gambling their future security on the stock market without any form of insurance to protect themselves against the risks of poor equity returns and rising life expectancy.â€™
Society wrought in the image of the private sector, equity markets and neo-liberalism has produced Britain as one of the most unequal societies in Europe.
Since 1980 the workers/taxpayers share of national income: from 45 per cent 1980 to 157 per cent 2007.
Private sector employers have largely abandoned contributions to private pensions. The desperation felt about the declining value of private pensions has to be located alongside the declining value of the basic state pension: it is one of the lowest in Europe.
â€˜The entire UK pension system has been based on a bet that equities would always do well enough over the long term to deliver good pensions,â€™ says Altman. â€˜Generous final salary schemes – as well as forecasts for good personal pensions – all relied on the equity gamble paying off. The expected strong equity returns also enabled successive governments to cut UK state pensions over time.â€™
Britain has the largest funded private pension system in Europe â€“ and lowest level of pensions as a percentage of earnings in Europe.
Women employed in the public sector are not responsible for any of this. They probably didnâ€™t vote for it, they certainly didnâ€™t cause it.
To Be or Not to Be On Strikeâ€¦
The strategic implications of the governmentâ€™s plan for pensions take us to the re-structuring of the state itself, and to the ethics of industrial action in the public sector. They are connected.
The industrial action is vulnerable to the charge that it is about individual interests v public interest, and that charge that the victims are not big power but people dependent on public servants.
Listening to strikers it is apparent that they are very afraid of the coalition governmentâ€™s surgical attack on the public sector and the culture of public service: November 30 it is about money, jobs, services and the people who need and use those services.
It is about everything.
But after all the years of purgatory into which trade unions were thrown by Thatcherism, no new idiom of â€˜industrial actionâ€™ has been invented to address the historic anomaly of strikes in public service: the target isnâ€™t profit or corporate power, it is a person; it is persons whose needs make them powerless.
Without doubt the day of action has concentrated the collective mind on the detail of the coalitionâ€™s re-distributive consequences, but it has not resolved the anxious hesitations of people who support the theory behind the strike but not its practise. If trade unions are recovering their nerve and purpose, they also need to improvise action that can inspire and engage those who need them most: the people like them â€“ the people.