It’s too easy to play the politics of envy with news that doctors have voted to strike – or rather, to withdraw all but essential services – on 21 June.
Well-remunerated public servants, most of whose education costs were met by the taxpayer also and who can look forward to gold-plated pension settlements on retirement, baulk at the idea of us all being in this together. At least, that’s how the Daily Mail styles it.
The truth, as always, is more complex. Yes, doctors earn a lot. There are some who deserve every penny and there are others who treat it all rather like the Goose who lays golden eggs, doing just enough to justify her laying capacity and no more. And yes, the pensions – the bonuses even – are eye-watering to many. But then they’ve paid their share towards those pensions and are as entitled surely to a pension as anyone else? But hey perform a highly-skilled and necessary job: if we want an NHS free at the point of need to keep us all in rude health, then that requires people to do so.
In any event, the UK Government is embarking on systemic public sector pension reform with little evidence to suggest it is the problem they make out. Deftly, they use the politics and economics of envy – in a neatly ironic twist – to persuade the ordinary Joes that public sector workers have had it good at our expense for too long and we can no longer afford it. The fact that the NHS pension pot is at least £2 billion in excess is conveniently ignored.
But does the extent of reform justify the response from doctors, and indeed other public sector workers? The proposals suggest that doctors will have to work until 68 before they retire – a bit like the rest of us then. And given the rapid advances in life expectancy for the average population – thanks in no small part to the wondrous talents of medical research and practice – we have to start thinking sensibly about this retirement malarkey. If most of us live until our early to mid 80s, that’s twenty years and more of economic inactivity for most. Is it right that this prospect just keeps on expanding, especially when people tend to come into the labour market much later than they did even ten years ago (not always of their own choosing, of course).
Of course, an appropriate debate on the consequences of and issues for an ageing society is being avoided at all costs and so, we have come down to having battle lines drawn over money.
The very idea of doctors withholding their labour causes some of us to gasp and to start stockpiling cans of soup for the prospect of barricades, rubbish on the streets and even revolution. A few of us might even get quite excited at the thought: instead of this slow burn of austerity that will result in a quite different public sector order, let’s just take our sides and get on with it.
But to reduce the need for futures thinking around what kind of public sector do we want to have and perhaps more cogently, can we afford in the decades ahead to narrow faultlines around the age of retirement and the amount people contribute to their pension pot is to miss the opportunity and sidestep the challenge. All sides are complicit in doing so.
There is no doubt that times are tough for everyone on a pay freeze in the public sector. It does not matter that you earn six figure sums saving lives or doling out anti-depressants: a real terms cut in income of 5% year on year means stuff has to be jettisoned. Feeling sorry for those at the top of the earnings pile having to decide whether or not to withdraw their precious offspring from private school as much as families trying to stop the electricity being cut off is moot. As I said, the politics of envy is unhelpful in this debate.
But we should be concerned that the discourse around the need for public sector reform has become so fixated on public sector workers’ pay and conditions. To some extent, this is inevitable given that salary costs dominate public spending: services cannot be delivered without staff, after all. Yet, with promises here in Scotland to pay living wages and to avoid compulsory redundancies mean that everyone is focused on the needs of the workers, way more than we are on the needs and interests of the recipients.
Is it right that the focus is on the workers rather than the work they do? Is it right that the workers choose to take a stand on their rights rather than on those they serve?
The doctors’ strike on 21 June is only the start: widespread action is planned right across the public sector in October and there are likely to be more skirmishes before then. Whether you like it or not, we are all going to be affected, some more seriously than others. Does it represent a return to militancy by the cosseted and feather-bedded or is strike action justified to make clear how destructive the UK Government approach and policies are?
What do you think? Are doctors right to strike?