Labour refuses to make promises to unions on public worker pay freezes

Tue, Oct 2, 2012, 01:00

SENIOR LABOUR Party figures avoided a public confrontation with leading British unions over their support for the Conservative/Liberal Democrats-imposed pay freezes on millions of British public workers as they sought to restore Labour’s reputation on the economy.

Repeatedly, union leaders, including Unite’s Len McCluskey and the GMB’s Paul Kenny, insisted that the pay freeze for lower-paid state workers was unfair and economically illiterate because such workers were forced to spend any pay rises.

However, shadow chancellor Ed Balls skirted the issue dividing the sides in his carefully-worded conference speech yesterday, saying only “that there will be difficult decisions in the future from which we will not flinch” on spending, pay and pensions.

Elsewhere, Chuka Ummuna, the shadow business secretary and an MP who is becoming increasingly prominent, sought to soothe feelings, telling a Unite meeting on the fringes of the Manchester conference that “from time to time there will be disagreements within families”.

The issue is politically significant, since the unions want Labour to launch a full-throated condemnation of the pay freeze on lower-paid state workers immediately, while the Labour leadership believes such a campaign would cripple its bid to restore its appeal with other voters.

Instead Mr Balls, and the party’s leader Ed Miliband in his conference speech today, are seeking to concentrate on identifiable promises of reform – including using the £4 billion (€5 billion) expected from the sale of 4G mobile telephone licences to build 100,000 council homes.

Today Mr Miliband, who is expected to make “a deeply personal speech” detailing his parents’ flights from Nazi persecution of the Jews, will focus on major changes in education, offering high-quality vocational training and apprenticeships to young people who do not go to university.

Repeatedly, however, Mr Balls refused to detail Labour’s plans if it wins in 2015.

“The longer this government staggers on with a failing economic plan, the worse it will get and the harder the job will be. Hard times will last longer than all of us hoped. And we cannot promise to put everything right straight away.

“That is why, however difficult this may be, when we don’t know what we will inherit, we cannot make any commitments now that the Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts. Unlike Nick Clegg, we will not make promises we cannot keep,” he declared.

Promising that Labour would be “upfront” closer to the 2015 election, he said “tough new fiscal rules” will be spelled out to deal with the current budget deficit and the ever-growing national debt “when we know the circumstances we will face”, said Mr Balls, in a widely anticipated and analysed speech.

For now, the unions – Labour’s biggest donors now that private contributions from the wealthy have largely dried up – seem ready to avoid a full-scale confrontation in public with Mr Miliband on the pay issue, though they remain deeply unhappy.

Unite’s general secretary Mr McCluskey told union members yesterday that he did not believe that Labour “sides” with workers. “That is precisely why we are trying to engage with the current leadership, so that they understand us and our values better,” he said.

The trade unions, he said, were Labour’s moral compass’ and “have always been a force for good in society”. “That is why David Cameron keeps talking about us,” said the Liverpool-born union leader, who is regarded as a significant thorn by the party’s leadership.

However, even if the unions are not ready to go to war internally over the issue, there was no let-up in the rhetoric. “Public sector workers have not had a pay rise for 3 years, while inflation has been high,” said GMB leader Mr Kenny.

“The out-of-touch elite decision makers are wrong. This is a time when public and private sector workers know that next year the multi-millionaire elite will be getting a boost to their income of £40,000 a year because of Tory tax cuts,” said the Irish-born union general secretary.