Now is the winter of our discontent….

The burdz’ feathers are grey enough to remember – just – the first winter of discontent.  I recall power cuts and porridge being made on a paraffin stove. 

While the lights will probably stay on, we definitely seem to be heading for unrest over the winter, with public sector unions flexing their muscles over the threat to public services.  Members of all three public sector unions have now voted against a 1.5% pay rise over 3 years.  And demos and marches are being planned to coincide with the publication of the Comprehensive Spending Review in October.  Canute like, the unions believe that they can hold back the tsunami of cuts, yet they offer no alternative to cutting services as a way of reducing public debt.  Indeed, the left’s inability to construct a credible framework for a new social and economic order is lamentable.

I have a smidgeon of sympathy for these workers, particularly when this year nurses got a single year pay rise of 2.25%, teachers 2.4% and police 2.25%.  Shame no one in the media saw fit to report such largesse.   But turning down any pay rise in the current climate shows the public sector is failing to grasp the reality of the situation.  When the IBR puts public sector pay at the top of its suggestions for making savings on the Scottish budget, the game’s a bogey.

It proposes three options for reining in the public sector pay bill. Scotland could follow the UK Government and provide a flat rate £250 increase to workers earning below £21,000 but also pay incremental awards to all.  Or we could freeze all pay but continue incremental or progression awards.  Or both pay and incremental awards could be frozen for 2 years.  The IBR appears to support the latter option, arguing that because Scotland has the misfortune to have a much larger public sector workforce on pittance pay than down south, such an increase would cost a budget busting £180 million.  The 3 Wise Men don’t see protecting the low paid, often in front line services, as a price worth paying: funny how perspective can be distorted from the comfort of a gold plated public sector pension.

They could also have proposed to freeze incremental awards for those earning above £21,000.  Such a move would bring down the estimated £180m bill considerably.  For, just as a percentage salary rise disproportionately benefits the highest earners, the JNC structure tends to award much larger percentage increments for those further up the scales.  However, the IBR indicates there may be contractual difficulties with any attempt to freeze incremental awards.  I’m sorry but in the current financial climate, all bets are off.  The normal rules of engagement just do not apply in these far from normal times.

The Scottish Government has already signalled an era of extreme constraint on pay.  It should follow the IBR’s advice and also instigate a recruitment freeze.  Astonishingly, there isn’t one in place already.  But the IBR’s calculations show that these two measures won’t be enough.  Job losses, preferably through natural wastage and non filling of vacant posts, are also required.  Freezing pay for all but the lowest paid will still require 11,500 jobs to go next year.  Many families are going to face very tough times indeed. 

Whichever way the numbers are shaken, cutting the size of the public sector pay bill and the workforce has become inevitable.  It’s now for the Scottish Government and the other political parties to face up to their responsibilities and make the right choices for the right reasons.  Whatever is decided, the unions seem unlikely to accept it:  they’ve already got the whiff of class war in their nostrils.   And if strikes happen, it will of course be their own low paid members and the vulnerable people they support and provide services to who will suffer the most.  Just as happened in the last winter of discontent….