Time for a clear-headed debate on the future of the public sector

What’s our future? Andy Rain/EPA

Since the election of the coalition government in 2010, the UK has experienced a series of initiatives to reform the structure, funding and operation of the public sector. Under the umbrella of economic strategy based on cutting the deficit through austere reductions to public spending, the government has led a root-and-branch reform of public sector pensions. Most staff now have to work longer, pay in more, and receive less than they used to.

This has been in parallel with either pay freezes or settlements averaging 1% against an average inflation rate in the past four years of 3%. In addition, significant changes in public sector structures – especially the NHS – and operational management has seen increases in workload. At the same time, the highly unionised workforce has seen its voice reduced, with senior managers given higher levels of decision-making powers along with higher salaries and reduced accountability. This was highlighed by the Francis Report public inquiry into Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust.

Entrenched disputes

As a result there have been long-running disputes on a number of issues. These have ranged from disputes over pensions by the Fire Brigades Union to others over pay by local government workers in UNISON, GMB, and UNITE and university staff in the University and College Union. Other unions have led action over workload, such as teachers in the National Union of Teachers, while the Public and Commercial Services Union have had disputes across the board on pay, pensions, and workload.

The actual forms of industrial action have varied from one-day strikes at random intervals to two-hour strikes on the odd day, to overtime bans, action to only work to contracted hours, and slightly longer stoppages. But there have been no all-out or general strikes as yet.

On July 10 there was a coming together of some of these groups – teachers, local government workers, firefighters, civil servants – in a very large stoppage (estimated at about 500,000) across the nation. News coverage was patchy – some local BBC radio reports were extremely sympathetic and full, whereas much of the national coverage was more hostile (especially to the teachers) and much more subdued. A second day of strikes has been called for September 30.

In many ways the event was an important one. The unions showed in a very public manner that they are still here and can run a day of strike action. There was high visibility for their case; and there is initial evidence from unions such as the NUT that as result there has been an increased membership.

In particular, the union case for more pay was contrasted both with the government’s tale of recovery and the high share of economic income going to an increasingly small but ever richer group – the gap between average earnings and those of the highest executives is now 180 times greater.

Political positioning

In addition, the government was pushed onto the defensive, leading to talk of further restrictions on the right to strike – not something required if striking really is futile.

The Labour leadership was unhelpfully silent on the issues and the July strike. Yet this is the moment in the election cycle that requires the Labour Party to create a picture of economic recovery based on growing wages and productivity linked with state investment in infrastructure, housing, and public services.

The strike day asked a real political question: what do our main political leaders consider to be the future of UK public services? Pay cuts, workload increases, further supply-side fragmentation, and privatisation suggest not just a down-grading of all public services but a removal of some services from public access.

This is a part of national life worth debating in totality: the role of the state, its funding of services, the free availability of health and education and the state’s part in the direction of economic recovery.

The Conservative answer seems to be clear – namely a forced retreat from the high tide of welfare – while Labour remains confused by its own legacy and future election chances. The strike day asked the right questions about the future of our public sector in a sharp and public way. Now we must debate them.