‘Over­paid pub­lic sec­tor’ – this di­vi­sive talk no longer works Zoe Wil­liams

Philip Hammond’s ef­forts to set work­ers against each other will back­fire, as his cab­i­net en­e­mies know

The Guardian - - OPINION -

Philip Hammond is a man more briefed against than brief­ing. Yet what­ever the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind cab­i­net leaks that he finds pub­lic sec­tor work­ers “over­paid”, no­body who saw his per­for­mance on the BBC’s An­drew Marr Show will doubt that this is what he thinks. “When you take into ac­count the very gen­er­ous con­tri­bu­tions that pub­lic sec­tor em­ploy­ers have to pay in to their very gen­er­ous pen­sions,” Hammond re­counted, a look of fleet­ing per­plex­ity on his face, “it is a sim­ple fact: rel­a­tive to pri­vate sec­tor work­ers, they are paid a 10% pre­mium.”

The chan­cel­lor might be a Brexit prag­ma­tist (a Brag­ma­tist?) but his sound eco­nomic sense only ex­tends so far. He un­der­stands that main­tain­ing links with our largest trad­ing part­ner is prefer­able to sui­cide, and that’s good; but he doesn’t seem to have given any se­ri­ous thought to what it’s like try­ing to live through seven years of “pay re­straint”, what ram­i­fi­ca­tions it might have for one’s abil­ity to eat, pay rent and en­joy frip­peries such as hol­i­days, and rais­ing chil­dren.

It is a com­mon my­opia in the busi­ness class to see wages as a bal­anc­ing mech­a­nism in a closed sys­tem of num­bers that must add up, and to give no thought to the lived ex­pe­ri­ence of earn­ing and spend­ing them. To Hammond, the key point is that “pub­lic sec­tor pay raced ahead of pri­vate sec­tor pay af­ter the 2008 crash”; the fact that there was im­me­di­ate con­trac­tion in the pri­vate sec­tor, while pub­lic sec­tor work­ers en­joyed two more years of a Labour gov­ern­ment be­fore their ad­ven­tures in aus­ter­ity be­gan, is an ir­rel­e­vance in this anal­y­sis.

Yet for any­one with any in­ter­est in the con­di­tions of the hard­work­ing fam­ily, that is the only rel­e­vant fea­ture: no­body’s wages raced any­where. Some peo­ple’s earn­ings stag­nated sooner than other’s. Some had to give up their dreams of a sol­vent old age be­fore oth­ers. The dif­fer­en­tial is a sideshow to a cat­a­strophic re­al­ity: that typ­i­cal real in­comes, af­ter hous­ing costs, are lower to­day in low- to mid­dle-in­come house­holds than they were in 2003 .

This shows up ev­ery­where: the sheer scale of poverty, from nurses hav­ing to use food banks to chil­dren com­ing back thin­ner af­ter sum­mer hol­i­days with­out school lunches, is sim­ply ex­tra­or­di­nary. A pol­i­tics that con­cerns it­self not with that, but with the trou­bling thought that some peo­ple’s pen­sions aren’t yet quite bad enough to re­flect our pub­lic straits, is per­verted be­yond recog­ni­tion.

With a sim­i­lar out­look on a dif­fer­ent mat­ter, the Bri­tish Cham­bers of Com­merce has called for a freeze in the na­tional “liv­ing” wage. It was never a wage to live on any­way, but in­stead a piece of Ge­orge Os­borne newspeak, bor­row­ing the lan­guage of anti-poverty am­bi­tion to de­scribe the main­te­nance of the sta­tus quo. But it was still far too gen­er­ous for the BCC, which warned that the planned in­crease, from £7.50 an hour to £8.75 by 2020, would pre­vent firms from grow­ing and lead to job losses. Leav­ing the EU will be dif­fi­cult enough, with­out “adding to the pain”.

Again, the min­i­mum wage is seen as a lever, to be pushed up and down, usu­ally down, in re­sponse to eco­nomic con­di­tions. Again, this rather kinder­garten con­cept of the eco­nomic ma­chine misses some hu­man com­plex­ity. Is it just a wish to make the low­est paid bear the bur­den of Brexit’s im­pact on busi­ness? Is it plau­si­ble to think that peo­ple who are al­ready us­ing food banks could go an­other three years with­out a pay rise? What kind of life can you build on £7.50 an hour?

Th­ese con­sid­er­a­tions are com­pletely ab­sent from that time­less busi­ness frame, “only we know how to do busi­ness, if you get in our way, we will go bust”; it was their an­swer in 1997 to the in­tro­duc­tion of the na­tional min­i­mum wage, and their an­swer a cen­tury be­fore that to the end of child labour. Busi­ness al­ways, some­how, man­ages to weather the shock when a bit of hu­man­ity is in­tro­duced to their in­puts and out­puts. It would make a bet­ter ac­count of it­self if it was pre­pared to con­sider, of its own ac­cord, the lives of those whose wages it would so blithely freeze.

This bald care­less­ness is made pos­si­ble by the re­lent­less in­sis­tence on dis­tinc­tions be­tween one low-paid worker and an­other. If one were to ac­cept that it is the stag­na­tion of wages across the board, cou­pled with ris­ing rents, that cre­ates hunger and des­ti­tu­tion, one would have trou­ble de­fend­ing it.

In­stead, ev­ery prob­lem is the fault of a rogue el­e­ment: an im­mi­grant for work­ing too hard for too lit­tle, a pub­lic sec­tor worker for de­mand­ing too much, a ben­e­fits claimant for not work­ing hard enough and breed­ing too fast. Or is that an im­mi­grant as well? It is hard to keep up with who, ac­cord­ing to Con­ser­va­tives, is the lat­est schemer, the un­pa­tri­otic lig­ger, try­ing to bring down pub­lic fi­nances.

Ev­ery­one must be set against one an­other, so that all de­mands are re­cast as an­ti­so­cial rather than proso­cial. Any nat­u­ral sol­i­dar­ity or fel­low feel­ing is dis­solved in the acid of the Con­ser­va­tives’ core propo­si­tion: if you have too lit­tle, it’s be­cause that other per­son is tak­ing too much. Fi­nally – and Hammond’s en­e­mies must know it, from the glee with which they leaked it – this fan­ci­ful idea at­tached to the wrong tar­get, and re­al­ity in­ter­venes.

No­body’s wages ‘raced’ any­where. It was that some peo­ple’s earn­ings stag­nated sooner than other’s

Il­lus­tra­tion by Bill Bragg

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