MINISTERS briefing that the 1 per cent cap on public-sector pay could be lifted in the autumn Budget reflect panic at the heart of government.
The Tories were faced yesterday with a Labour amendment to the Queen’s Speech calling for an end to the hated policy, which combined with a previous two-year freeze on public-sector pay has meant seven years of real-terms pay cuts for millions of public servants.
Nurses, firefighters, midwives and others are now more than £1,000 worse off a year in real terms than they were when the Tory-Liberal Democrat love-in gave birth to “austerity” — or rather a massive attack on working people’s pay and rights — in 2010.
Despite their sordid stitch-up with the Democratic Unionist Party, the Conservatives were evidently so fearful that Labour could win this vote that they had to throw a bone to jittery back-benchers in the form of a vague promise that the cap might be lifted later in the year.
It’s hardly surprising Tory MPs are worried.
Former policy chief Oliver Letwin whines that Labour is “playing politics” by calling for an end to police and fire brigade cuts and a long-overdue pay rise for workers in light of the terror attacks in Manchester and London and the deaths of scores of innocent people in the entirely avoidable Grenfell Tower fire.
This is nonsense: Labour was calling for all of this before these terrible events, but as Jeremy Corbyn points out, they ought to “focus people’s minds” on the consequences of taking an axe to emergency service budgets, and on the gross injustice of a Tory government that heaps praise on the heroism of police officers and firefighters when tragedy puts them under the spotlight but treats them like dirt the rest of the time.
Had Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell promised to stick to Tory spending plans — as their predecessors Ed Miliband and Ed Balls did — only to U-turn now, it would be different.
Such behaviour would echo that of David Cameron and George Osborne, who vowed to match Labour spending when Gordon Brown was prime minister only to denounce it as out of control a few months later.
But Corbyn and McDonnell have warned for years that cuts have consequences, and that in the end a Tory policy of slashing budgets to the bone and tearing up safety legislation is going to cost lives.
Nor were they alone. The trade unions, independent pay review bodies, economists and this newspaper have all been pointing out the human misery caused by “austerity” for years.
Ministers’ hints that it might come to an end should not be taken seriously.
Theresa May declared in October 2016 that “our economy should work for everyone, but if your pay has stagnated for several years in a row and fixed items of spending keep going up, it doesn’t feel like it’s working for you.”
That didn’t stop her going into the general election earlier this month committed to maintaining the 1 per cent pay cap for the next three years.
If the Tories retreat on austerity, it will not be because they have recognised the damage it is doing but because they are being forced back by a Labour offensive.
It will be a “massive victory for trade union campaigning,” as TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady states — as well as a vindication of the way Labour’s election manifesto has changed the political conversation in this country.
But nurses, hospital porters and others can’t wait for an unspecified rise in the autumn. Unions and Labour must press their advantage and prise a serious pay rise for working people from the icy grip of a dead government.