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Tories have reverted to type on public sector workers

Remember David Cameron, the courageous champion of the public sector worker? This may have thousands of you spluttering tea across your keyboards, but months after becoming the Conservative party leader, Cameron slammed Labour for “using public servants as scapegoats”. In defiance of his party’s Thatcherite creed, he admitted:

“Anyone working in the public services could easily have heard a pretty negative message from my party: ‘there’s too many of you, you’re lazy and you’re inefficient.’ This is far from the way I see things.”

But 2006 was another era: when Cameron hugged hoodies, posed with huskies and backed Labour’s spending plans pound for pound. At the weekend, Oliver Letwin – one of his closest allies – declared that public sector workers needed “some real discipline and some fear“. Unless they produced the best results, “some will not survive; it is an inevitable and intended consequence of what we are talking about”. It won’t have escaped his attention that fear is already sweeping through our public services because of the government’s cuts agenda. But, needless to say, the Tory press was delighted. “Public sector flops must pay the price for failure,” the Telegraph bellowed approvingly. We’re 14 months into Cameron’s Britain, and our 6 million public sector workers have never been so reviled.

The way the Conservatives transformed a crisis of the banks into a crisis of public spending was a stroke of political genius. This year, bankers got away with awarding themselves nearly £14bn of bonuses with barely a word of complaint. Meanwhile, the Tories have carefully constructed the image of a public sector workforce made up of idle, pampered pen-pushers who can easily be disposed of. The nurses, teachers, firefighters, librarians, bin-collectors (and so on) that society depends on to function have been written off as a bunch of parasites leaching off the taxpayer.

With few politicians – including in the Labour party – willing to make the case for public sector workers, caricatures go unchallenged. In fact, a quarter of all workers earning less than £7 an hour are in the public sector. Public service workers do the equivalent of 120m hours of unpaid overtime a year. Far from the public sector being full of cushy jobs that can be slashed with no one even noticing, the impact of cuts is already being felt. At the HMRC, where up to 25,000 staff have lost their jobs since 2007, service is now so poor that the chair has had to apologise. And, despite all the talk of “gold-plated public sector pensions“, the average local government pension pot is just £2,800.

Promoting “fear” among workers is likely to cost. According to the UK’s Faculty of Public Health, anxiety and depression cost employers £13bn in sickness pay and lost productivity – with an additional £12bn in public-service spending and carers’ time.

In any case, the government’s talk of driving up productivity in the public sector is fraught with problems. It’s not like making cars or TVs: it’s impossible to put a monetary value on everything that our public services do. If spending on cancer treatment went up by 10% and cancer deaths subsequently went down by 5%, that might not score well for productivity – but would we really see it as a failure?

But bashing public sector workers has clear political dividends for the Tories. Last month, Cameron pledged to open public services to private companies. It was an announcement that coincided with Southern Cross shutting down all of its 752 care homes: a striking warning of how putting profit before social need risks disaster. Portraying public sector workers as inefficient layabouts helps build the case for privatisation. And yet it’s dogma triumphing over the facts: studies suggest contracting out services actually hits productivity.

It’s also classic Tory divide-and-rule politics. Make low-paid call centre and supermarket workers resent nurses and firefighters, and you will destroy any potential unity on issues such as cuts, pensions and rights in the workplace.

What sort of society demonises people who work in schools and hospitals, put out fires or collect rubbish?

Public service, the concept of working for the good of the community, is a high ideal,” said Cameron back in 2006. “Yet this is rarely, if ever, acknowledged.” After over a year in office, his words have never rung more true.

This first appeared at the Guardian Comment is Free.

One Comment

  1. Eddie Kelly says:

    excellent article.I worked at leeds public works dept for 25 years and we survived for 17years of Thatcher and Major..And Blair closed us down soon after he got elected and Labour lost a lot of votes from lads having to go out into the”jungle”after being told vote Labour and you will be safe.I sincerely hope the next Labour govt will not betray the people its supposed to represent

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