Thursday 11 March 2021

The Tory Politics of the 1% "Pay Rise"

The Tories are imposing a one per cent pay rise on NHS workers. Which, thanks to inflation and the projected five per cent increase in council tax everywhere, is really a pay cut. This has upset and angered a lot of people. According to polling by Opinium, 72% thought the pay "offer" should be more generous, with 58% of self-identified Tories also agreeing. Interestingly, 51% said they would support strike action of nurses against the derisory settlement versus 36% opposed. There's something in the air ...

Not in free circulation is an appreciation of the problems the Tories have got themselves into. Their line isn't working like they hoped, but sadly some comrades refuse to see the mess in front of their faces. There are otherwise sensible people seemingly believing the attempted imposition of one per-cent isn't a screw up, but rather a clever-clever game of rank manipulation. It's all part of an elaborate master plan.

Look, the Tories know how to manage politics, but they're not ominpotent. There's nothing supernatural about their mastery of the dark arts. For instance, let us consider the proposition being pushed, that the Tories are pushing one per cent so they can get away with awarding their real "offer" of 2.1%. They'd be seen being a listening government and, presumably, when the inevitable cave-in comes and this will translate into favourable polling ahead of this May's Super Thursday. Yet this doesn't make sense. On Wednesday at Prime Minister's Questions, Keir Starmer waved around his bit of paper reminding the assembled honourable members that 2.1% was already budgeted for and had been voted through by the Tories in January 2020. The question is if the Tories wanted to look good, they should have simply implemented this instead of damaging themselves and their standing in the eyes of those equivocating voters who've recently travelled back toward them thanks to the vaccine bounce. Bouncing back like this just doesn't happen in politics in the absence of a clear out of the incumbent leadership.

This tendency to ascribe the Tories horrifying power comes from a failure to appreciate them as a collective political actor. They operate with numerous advantages, but like all parties they can make mistakes. Decision-making and policy in the Tory party is highly centralised and, like any other political actor, its leadership cadre make judgement calls on the basis of evidence, feeling, commitments, lobbying/favours, strategies, etc. They are also conditioned by the push-me-pull-you of internal politicking, factionalising, ministerial rivalries, and pressures from outside - both that perceived coming from the wider electorate and what the chief executive whispered into minsters' ears over dinner. Even if one is armed with the most accurate appreciation of what politics is and the probabilistic character of social relationships, the correct call is by no means guaranteed and things go wrong. Misreadings are a commonplace, and the one per cent pay "increase" is such a moment.

What is the Tory thinking in this instance, given how we find them willingly and unnecessarily risking their authority over something that is marginal to their project again. There's the ongoing cuts to the NHS, which amount to running it down so it can be offered up cheaply to those whose nests the Tories have generously feathered throughout the pandemic. But of more consequence is the concerted efforts of the government to dampen down expectations after Covid has abated. They have navigated the crisis with some political skill. They're not on the hook for 125,000 deaths, nor the economic cataclysm, and so there's no real reason to believe they can't win the peace - especially when the official opposition has barely challenged their overtly politicised management of Covid-19. The Tories want things to go back the way they were, and holding down public sector pay - including NHS workers - is a statement of intent. It's a reminder to state employees who's boss, so be grateful you have jobs and don't rock the boat, and to assure their support among the fractions of capital, big and small, that stoking the fires of higher wage claims won't be among their worries once an approximation to normality resumes.

And they thought they could genuinely get away with it. One thing about these Tories. Their political management of the big issues is skilled, but on day-to-day tactics they acquire butter fingers and drop the ball frequently. Lockdown timings, holiday hunger, food parcels, and now NHS pay. Other concerns appear to crowd out Tory nous and hubris sets in. A majority of 80 and a fondness for old-style Dave/Osborne strivers-vs-the-skivers assumptions would tend to do that, and as this keeps happening there's no reason to believe it won't happen again and they'll make a pig's ear of another tactical matter. Therefore, the labour movement must be alive to the likelihood of more mistakes in the future, and the potential they have for mobilising opposition. Already the government have partially retreated from their money's tight/we're all in the same boat positioning to awaiting the outcome of the independent pay review, but the constant talk of strike action and evidence of mass anger can force further retreats. And if they cave on NHS pay, the road is open for public sector workers first, and then workers more generally to make demands and organise around them. And once we move and move decisively, the Tories' omnipotence is really shown up as impotence.

Image Credit


David Timoney said...

I really think the Tories stance on this is more about flushing Labour out (which they have successfully done) to support a wholly inadequate 2.1%. They can then neutralise the NHS issue with a 2% (trolling) offer or make Labour look idiotic by plumping for 2.5%. I doubt they're looking much beyond May. They're not going to "cave in" because they are in control of the narrative. This is about Labour's impotence, not the Tories'.

Dipper said...

I guess everyone has their own echo chamber, but in mine the push for nurses to get a higher pay rise when many ion the private sector have had pay cuts or lost their jobs is deeply unpopular and resented.

"And if they cave on NHS pay, the road is open for public sector workers first, and then workers more generally to make demands and organise around them".

This isn't how this is going to work is it. Public sector pay rises will be funded by taxes on private sector and reduced growth.

Labour becoming a public-sector union pressure group is one of a number of ways that Labour can ensure they do not win the next election.

Robert Dyson said...

Probably the pay review body will recommend 3% which Johnson will accept and point out how Labour were demanding something less.

Boffy said...

"This isn't how this is going to work is it. Public sector pay rises will be funded by taxes on private sector and reduced growth."

Tories have successfully presented matters in that way, but it is fundamentally untrue. Its superficially true that the government pays for the NHS, for education and other such services by raising taxes, but economically speaking, these taxes are not taxes at all. They are simply a collective charge, or in the case of National Insurance contributions, more clearly an insurance premium collected for the provision of such services.

In reality, there is no difference to whether the government pays for these services by collecting taxes and NI contributions, or whether it were to collect say School Fees at the start of every term, from parents, in the same way that private schools do, or were to introduce a specific National Health Insurance Scheme, as is the case with many socialised healthcare system in Europe, or as operated by say BUPA.

The issue is actually only one of the provision of universal education and healthcare not of how its paid for, which ultimately comes out of the wages fund of society, i.e. in Marx's analysis out of the portion of total social production set aside for the reproduction of labour-power. The wages paid to NHS nurses, as much as the wages of nurses in private hospitals come out of that same fund, however they are collected, whether as specific insurance payments, direct payments for a service, or in the obfuscated form of "taxes".

Its only a question of how those charges are collected in each case. For society as a whole, individual payments are inefficient, leading to oversaving, and high administrative costs. That is why insurance systems were introduced. But a multiplicity of insurance schemes are also costly to administer, which is why European countries introduced national social insurance schemes instead. Making the payment into them, as with taxation was simply a means of the capitalist welfare state ensuring that workers as a whole were forced to devote a minimum of the wages fund to this reproduction of labour-power, required by capital, rather than spending the money on food, or other such frivolous pursuits.

Blissex said...

There was another moment about nurses, a turning point in UK politics that happened around twenty years ago: the New Labour government sacked 500 nurses to replace them with agency temps, during a period of economic growth, and with increasing need of nurses due to ageing, and pretty much there were no consequences. At the time I thought that the mass sacking was quite unnecessary, and was done mainly to test whether even the sacking of a cherished category like nurses and purely to hire replacements at lower wages would result in a reaction from public opinion.
The longer term outcome of that was a substantial fall in the number of people training for nursing in the UK, and a flood of much cheaper foreign nurses joining the NHS, and a transfer of many oldies to "care" homes employing maids that are not nurses and paid much less.

As to the current story with nurses pay, many voters still don't care, or remember a New Labour minister ((IRC John Hutton) arguing that lower pay for NHS workers thanks to immigration etc. was vital to ensure that the NHS could expand without increasing taxes.

As to electoral politics, even if local elections are somewhat less irrelevant than past EU elections, they still don't matter that much (in 2004 there was a Conservative landslide given how toxic Tony Blair was, but since property cost inflation was still strong New Labour still got a majority of seats in 2005, on a much reduced vote and turnout), and the Conservatives anyhow reckon that people don't vote on nurse wages, just as they don' vote on prisons, and that the prize is anyhow the 2024 general elections.

BCFG said...

To me, McDonalds burgers are as much of a cost and a tax burden as the NHS, actually much more. Actually to me, McDonalds are a pure cost with no benefits, at least the NHS has benefits.

For example, if someone wasn’t flipping burgers for McDonalds, damaging both the environment and the general health of the population, they could be doing something really useful like, well Nursing. And all the buildings and material used by McDonalds could be put to much better use.

So when dipper says public is paid out of private, I would say this is at best irrelevant, but more to the point not true. The reason Dipper can make this false claim is because we live in an exchange system, where ‘private’ goods are prioritised over ‘public’ goods.

Incidentally, and here is one for the Marx quote anoraks amongst us, Marx made a clear distinction between these private and public goods and Marx expected that under a communist system, i.e. one free of exchange, public goods would increase greatly relative to private goods.

So the difference between the NHS and say McDonalds, isn’t that one is funded via our taxes and the other isn’t, it is in the qualitative nature of those things. McDonalds delivers garbage food and nothing else, while the NHS treats us for the effects of eating the garbage food, and much more besides.

If you ignore exchange and do not allow ourselves to be bamboozled by money, then McDonalds is a far greater burden on us all than the NHS is. It is just that McDonalds manage to externalise most of their costs.

That all said, Dipper is probably correct about the politics of it all, though it is good timing from nurses given the year they have had, they will get some popular sympathy, though I wouldn’t like to think my future rested on that. I guess if businesses can raise prices when demand goes up why can’t workers.

All the same shit of an exchange system to my mind.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

I am inclined to agree with @Dipper. I've heard plenty say that "they are lucky to have a job" and "we won't get any pay rises" or "we can't afford it". All the old austerity bollocks about the national credit card being maxed and your children will have to pay this debt back etc is still widely believed - partly thanks to New labour never even trying to counter it.

Sadly I am coming to the conclusion that Starmer and the majority of the PLP believe it too. They genuinely think a slightly nicer version of the Tories is what is required and, at heart, it's what they are.

Why they aren't positioning themselves as saying that our democracy needs a reset to make it fit for the 21st century. That electoral, constitutional and institutional (of parliament, national and local government) reform is absolutely necessary. That our state is dysfunctional due to over centralisation and power excessively being in the hands of individuals. That people have been infantilised and reduced to dependency on almost mythologised leader figures. That corruption is open and spreading. We need deliberative, decentralised, devolved democracy, pushing responsibility, decision making and resuorces out to the communities and localities where all the innovation, creativity and engagement really happens. If they don't do this, we are all truly f*cked.