One of the many budget leaks to appear over the weekend signalled the death of “nationally” negotiated and settled pay claims for much of the public sector.
Ever the Baldrick, the Chancellor of Exchequer George Osborne has hit upon yet another cunning wheeze to save the taxpayer money by moving to regional pay settlements for the public sector. Rather than pay increases and salary bands apply right across the UK for jobs of similar worth and type, local scales will apply. He intends to phase in the introduction and start with three civil service departments. In keeping with the worst excesses of his Tory nature, I expect him not to start at the top with the mandarins but somewhere near the bottom. DWP employees seem a good bet: one more indignity heaped upon those that work in the sharp end of the civil service is too good an opportunity to miss.
These set-piece manoeuvres are rather like a Greek tragedy, with all the stock characters recognisable by the masks they wear. Deviation from well-worn characteristics would simply confound us. Thus, the trade unions took no time in coming out screeching. Regional pay deals will simply entrench the haves and have-nots in terms of our economy, union leaders reckon, and punish hard-pressed workers already suffering due to pay freezes, job losses and rising costs.
Meanwhile, the SNP, determined always to cast itself in the role of hero, quickly established that such a move would be detrimental to Scotland and for many Scottish workers. Indubitably, Scotland will be one of the areas to lose out, although at this stage the separate Scottish and local government pay bargaining schemes would be unaffected. The consequence of this will not just be a two-tier system that is geographically based, but at least a three-tier one. A Scottish clerical assistant in the DWP could feasibly earn not just less than his or her counterpart in Surrey, but also less than someone doing the same job in the NHS or police service.
It is absolutely designed to foment division and will no doubt succeed. And the SNP is right to stand up for the rights of employees in the UK wide civil service working in Scotland, and right too to point up the risk presented to economic growth and to investment in public services. The Scottish Government has already worked out that the Tories’ tactical own goal is on the Barnett formula. Osborne’s sly move will result in less money coming to Scotland as part of the Scottish block grant, giving the SNP the chance to deride the mantra “stronger together, weaker apart”.
Either Osborne really doesn’t do unintended consequences or the conspiracy theorists who reckon that it would suit the Tories very well to be shot of Scotland are beginning to sound like they know what they’re talking about.
It’s an easy and obvious target for the Scottish Government to score a short-term hit, but there are potential, even more lucrative longterm gains to be had.
For many on the left, particularly those in the trade union movement, solidarity and fraternity with fellow workers has always been a bar to even countenancing the idea of independence. The ability and right to bargain national ie UK wide pay settlements has been a key concern: it’s the mantra in action. The best deal for the greatest number of union members, no matter where they live. And it’s been a hard one for the SNP to break down with many voters who otherwise might be persuadable of the benefits of independence.
Yet, there comes a point for the Scottish leaders and members of public sector unions when they have to put their own needs first, and Osborne might just have helped them reach it. If the Tories are determined to do good by employees in the South East and make everyone else pay for that, do unions persist in trying to achieve the unachievable and in so doing, subjugate the needs of a majority of their members to the greater good of the whole purpose? Or do they cut their losses and run and move to driving a hard bargain on a regional basis?
This is where the opportunity lies for the SNP. Yes, a reduced pay settlement for civil servants based in Scotland will mean less money in the block grant, but could the Scottish Government work with the Welsh and Northern Irish Assembly administrations to create a new, Celtic approach to public sector pay? By banding together their resources, could they make them go further and while not being able to reinstate the cut fully, at least look at how to minimise its impact on the lowest paid in civil service departments?
If we are to get regional pay bargains imposed, then let’s turn a challenge into an opportunity. The SNP could take a lead on creating a truly regional approach with the trade unions that breaks down the old monolithic, UK wide structures and encourages them to think differently about their role. And if the unions refuse outright? Well, whose side are they on – their own, their party’s or their members?
The SNP considers that with independence, Scotland could be a progressive beacon for opinion south of the border, leading and showing the way on these isles on a range of policies and issues. By all means, make the short-term noise required over this assault on public sector pay, but also work out how to turn this challenge into an example of how the progressive beacon theme might work in practice. The requirement to win the political battle of the day does not need to over-ride the desire to win the war.