THE toxic Tory leadership contest is turning into a race to the bottom — with Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak competing to offer the most extreme attacks on pay and the public sector.
Truss’s “war on Whitehall waste” is a case in point, a dramatic rejection of the “levelling-up” promises made by Boris Johnson as she promises to cut public-sector pay in poorer regions by abolishing national pay deals.
Though the proposal is aimed at Civil Service jobs, the logic of further erosion of national pay agreements — already undermined by the impact of privatisation and academisation in services like health and education — is to fragment unions’ bargaining power and drive pay down.
The Conservatives have historically been masters of the dark art of divide and rule: portraying workers who fight for better pay and conditions as a threat to the living standards of everyone else.
Inventing a conflict of interest between public and private-sector workers is one of their most common gambits, often framed as a matter of securing “taxpayer” interests (a sweeping term helping to cloak the important distinctions between taxing goods, taxing incomes, taxing profits and taxing wealth) by reducing public spending.
Truss’s prescription relies on both to “level down” pay and conditions in the Civil Service. We can tell that the proposals for regional pay are not aimed at raising anyone’s wages because they are pitched as a spending cut.
In her vision — or that of her campaign team — the same downward pressure will be applied to private-sector pay by reducing pay in the public sector. It asserts that private-sector employers are “crowded out” by relatively high public-sector pay.
Make no mistake — this is a recipe for pay cuts for all workers. It means employers will be able to offer workers less because there are fewer better-paid alternatives. It exposes the rank hypocrisy in Tory ministers’ advice to people struggling with the cost of living that they should find higher-paid jobs.
At the same time, she takes aim at holiday allowance, arguing that average holiday entitlement in the private sector is lower.
Given the recent attacks on rest days in the transport sector — with government determined to remove rail workers’ right to days off and end higher pay for working unsocial hours — our movement’s response needs to expose these arguments.
Lower pay in one sector reduces the bargaining power of workers in other sectors. Asking why “worker X should earn this when worker Y only earns this” is a mainstream media staple during every pay dispute, but the question needs to be turned around and made an argument for all workers to fight collectively for better pay.
The same applies to terms and conditions won by organised labour over the decades. If holiday allowances are forced down in the public sector, they will be forced down in the private sector.
As fewer and fewer employers offer better terms to work nights or weekends, the imposition of unsocial hours on all workers without reward becomes standardised.
Truss’s ideas are out of step with a public which polls show is more concerned with raising pay than cutting taxes.
Nonetheless, a powerful counter-narrative must be developed through this summer’s strike wave that tackles the Tory arguments head on.
The Brexit process is ample evidence that when an economic model is clearly failing most people, the status quo will be rejected.
Labour’s current opposition to the turbo-Thatcherism of Truss and Sunak falls flat because without any indication that it would make major economic changes itself, it looks like the party of the way things are.
That puts it on a path to defeat, however much worse things can and will get under the Conservatives.
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