Carolyn's Business MK Column Nov 2010

Mon 01 Nov 2010

Over the last few days the first shots have been fired in a war which could engulf us all.  In all probability it will not “be over by Christmas.”  

On one side, blue and yellow battle pennants flapping in the breeze of public opinion, stands the government; on the other, the massed ranks of the public sector unions.  

Two and a half thousand years ago the Greek playwright Aeschylus lamented, “In war, truth is the first casualty.”  Without accusing either side in this conflict of outright lies there has already been much “manipulation” of the truth in an attempt to win the moral high ground in the court of public opinion.

In what some might see as a remarkable coincidence, just as the war of words has been getting under way, the apolitical Office for National Statistics issued figures in the last few days illustrating the startling divide in pay between the private and public sectors.  Their annual number-crunching exercise has revealed that average pay (including pensions) in the public sector is £539 as opposed to just £465 in the private world of business.  This tasty morsel was like a chunk of raw meat thrown to the slavering headline writers of the more right-leaning of our newspapers.  “Myth of the underpaid public sector worker,” harrumphed the Telegraph while the Mail lamented, “The Great Public, Private pay Gulf.”  Interestingly, the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that public sector workers like doctors, hospital consultants, judges and generals tend to be more highly qualified than the average waitress or car salesman and that when qualifications are taken into account there is actually very little difference between the two areas.  However, inconvenient or complex truths do not great war cries make, so you will not be hearing  much more  information like that.  It would seem that Aeschylus knew what he was talking about.

This illustrates very nicely the difficulty we the public have when our hearts and minds are being fought over in such a giant tug-of-war.  The government and the unions both have to spin their stories because they know that the truth is complicated and inconclusive.  That is to say, some public sector workers have an easier ride than we might like for more remuneration than we would want to pay.  However, many other of our collective employees work very hard with great dedication for lesser rewards than they deserve.  It is almost inevitable that whatever cuts are finally imposed will disadvantage some of the “good workers” and do no harm to some of the “bad workers,” so everyone will be cross and will complain that the whole thing is being handled very badly.

It seems logical, therefore, that it would be in everyone’s interests for the two sides to sit down together to work out the best way of implementing cuts.  Imagine the scene, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, sleeves rolled up, sharing some creative thinking about how to dig the nation out of a hole with Mark Serwotka, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley from the Public and Commercial Services Union and UNITE.  “Well, I suppose we could lose a few people in hospital administration,” says Mark.  “Possibly,” replies David, “but I wouldn’t want to make the burden too great on their colleagues.  We have to be fair.”
If only life really were that simple.

The problem for both sides is that their key messages are not just aimed at us.  Both will say the fight is about the public finances and the protection of public services, but that is just a part of it.
David Cameron’s every word is pored over for signs of weakness by his back benchers, constantly checking for signs of his political purity having been corrupted by the Liberal Democrats.  Nick Clegg’s problem is the same in reverse.  A very high proportion of his electorate are public sector workers, and his own MPs and party members have a natural inclination to soften the cuts where possible, also believing too savage a hack at the public purse will do more harm than good.  The Union leaders are “Barons” no longer, but their own positions within their organisations will be defined by this war.  The public sector is the last bastion of Trades Unionism in Britain and they have no desire to be labelled in history as the ones who presided over its final destruction.  

Fundamental to effective public relations is to tell the truth.  Make stuff up and you will get caught.  The politicians and union leaders know this, but their predicament of trying to satisfy their public and private audiences is inescapable.  David Cameron cannot say, “I instinctively have a bit of a downer on the public sector and want to shrink government where possible but I know these cuts are going to do some serious damage to public services and the poorest people are going to suffer the most.”  Mark Serwotka cannot say, “I know there have to be cuts.  People I represent are going to lose jobs or suffer worsened working conditions but there isn’t any alternative if the country is going to get back into the black again.”  Many of us might applaud if they did, but some of their own people would lynch them.  

Whatever the outcome, the leaders of both sides in this war will lose.  Wherever the cuts fall people will be hurt and feel betrayed.  The Prime Minister will be accused of too much compromise on one hand and of brutal disregard for the poorest in society on the other.  The Union leaders will be slated from the right for old-fashioned Marxist dogmatism and from the left for having “failed the movement and the members.”  Like a car crash in slow motion they see the headlights coming towards them but are incapable of getting out of the way.

Even greater losers in this war of smoke and mirrors where already truth lies trampled in the mud and the blood, will be all of us.  Services will suffer, unemployment will rise, the National Debt will persist albeit in somewhat shrunken form.  “The same as it ever was.”

But is it possible that we who will blame the two warring sides are actually the cause of the problem? Politicians and Union leaders are “economical with the truth” because we “can’t handle the truth!”  Politics is a simple equation.  People pay tax, government spends the money on services. Generally, the more money government has, the better the services we enjoy in return.  We want smooth, free-flowing roads, gleaming sophisticated hospitals, wonderfully equipped schools and the best armed forces in the world – just so long as someone else pays for it.  This is the awful truth that politicians and union leaders have to hide from us all, like over-sensitive children who might have nightmares.  If we do not want them to spin this argument; if we want to know the truth about where cuts could and should be made and if we want both sides to be able to talk to each other sensibly rather than hurling rhetoric like grenades at each other, the maybe it is we who need to grow up?

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