‘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
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