The attack has well and truly begun. The attack on public services and in particular on public sector pensions. Today we had Lord Mandelson warning about a decade of cuts to public services, and this even if New Labour gets re-elected. The Daily Mail has a headline warning about a £200bn crisis hits company pensions. And to cap it all unemployment continues to rise to almost 2.4 million, the highest since 1995. Of course it is most unlikely that any of the top people at the Daily Mail or the companies facing a pensions crisis will themselves face unemployment. While Mandy may lose his job after the next general election, he is not yet worrying about paying the mortgage. The new age of austerity is not likely to affect our ruling elites. Austerity is for the likes of you and I.
The immediate cause of all these fresh attacks on public services is of course the economic crisis. It is interesting to look at the roll call of those calling for cuts. The Institute of Directors, the CBI, the financial sector, the mainstream media and of course, the Tory party. All of them either very rich people in their own right, or the mouthpieces for even richer people or very rich companies and organizations. Not much new there – the rich and the political right have always waged a constant war against public services – especially those that most benefit the poor and middle income earners. What is new and most worrying this time is that the Lib Dems and New Labour have joined in the attacks.
The attacks tend to come in two forms, and the first is a generalised wail that “we”, or “the country” cannot afford to continue the current levels of spending on public services. This is in part simply self-serving pleading. As already mentioned, many of the “we” don't actually use many public services, be it schools, health services or care services, because they are rich enough to pay for their own private provision. The cuts they are after won't affect them so it is a bit rich to be dressing up their own selfishness in a collective “we”. The truth is that “We” simply do not want to continue to pay for decent public services for “you lot”.
In another sense this claim is palpable nonsense in that while it may be true of the current balance of government income and spending, that particular balance is in no way sacrosanct. And if we are to question the current balance then both sides of the equation – income raised as well as money spent – need to be looked at. Of course our elites, including New Labour, do not want us to talk about this, because we, the people, might come up with a different balance – one that favoured us, the majority.
As regards the income side – the moneys raised by the government – this is long overdue a thorough review. As one of the richest countries in the world, raising money for government expenditure should not be a problem. There should of course be an open debate about how much to raise and in particular how to raise this money. Who pays what is the oldest and most bitterly contested question in politics. It is not one that most elites want to raise as the majority of us might well conclude that the well off and the rich should contribute much more to the public coffers. Business, especially financial businesses might also be expected to pay a fairer share to redress the inequities and the social and environmental disasters that they cause.
On the expenditure side, the attack is usually focussed on public services and less often on government spending as such. This is because many of our elites quite like a lot of government spending. Military expenditure is usually regarded as a good thing if not an actual duty. The more and the bigger weapons “we” can have the better it seems. Money rarely seems to be an objection. Spending on the police, security and law 'n order is also well regarded. Our rich and their cronies must be protected at all times. Public spending on bailing out failing businesses is also usually regarded as a good thing, especially by those in receipt of such largesse. Quite what “we” the people get in return is not often very clear. No; government spending is not itself the problem. It is spending on the main public services – education, health and social services – that most annoy the rich and their attendants in the media.
As with government income there is a need for a thorough review of what the state should spend public money on. But this needs to look way beyond public services to encompass all government spending. Just how much of a military do we really need. Will the UK forever be stuck in some Imperial mind set, always seeking a seat at the big table – whatever the costs? When and how should the sate get involved in bailing out industries – and what sort of quid pro quo should “we” the people get in return for our money? These are just some of the questions that should be asked before we even begin to look at public services.
The other attack focusses more precisely on public sector workers and their pensions. As a former public sector worker – in local government – I have an interest to declare about this particular issue. The main focus of the current attack is to try and foment antagonism and hostility within the working population. The hardships of some workers in the private sector – threats of unemployment, short time working, pay restraint or actual pay cuts - are contrasted with the supposed paradise of workers in the public sector. A special venom is reserved for public sector pensions. Apparently we, retired public sector workers are all living a life of Riley with fabulous pensions. No doubt, somebody in the public sector has a fabulous pension, but the overwhelming majority of public sector workers are low paid. Many only work part-time. Therefore most end up with pretty dismal pensions. They may be inflation proof and guaranteed, but if your final salary is peanuts you pension is half a peanut - provided you worked for forty years without a break. Very few women can manage this and not that many men either. This attack on public sector pensions is a pathetic attempt on the part of the directors and managers in the private sector to avoid facing up to their own responsibilities for not ensuring a solid financial base for their companies' pension schemes. How many company directors and top managers are likely to miss out on a decent pension? If there is a problem in providing decent pensions in the private sector the answer would seem to be to nationalize the whole pensions system and not set off one worker against another. Divide and rule has always been a good call for the rich. The vast majority of working people should instead start campaigning for a decent state pension for all – no-one should need a company pension. Do away with all occupational pensions schemes and create one state pension scheme for all – this can be based on final salary, as the more you earn the more you pay into the scheme.
These attacks on the public sector are just part of a strategy to prevent the public from demanding justice from those who got us into this economic crisis. In other words the self same people who are demanding cuts in public services. And as far as I can see, none, absolutely none of them has so far been punished. True, some well know bankers have lost their jobs – but with massive pay outs and pensions, mostly funded by you and I. The guilty people run far beyond the financial sector. They include the government ministers who presided over this collapse and failed to put in place a solid regulatory framework; the officials in the Bank of England, the FSA and other so-called regulatory bodies, who did nothing to prevent this crisis; the opposition and their cheerleaders in the media who not merely failed to oppose, but egged on every further deregulation.
To misquote someone – never have so few caused such a disaster for so many. And still they refuse to admit their responsibility for any of this. “We”, the people, should be on the attack against them.