In my last blog, I was remembering when the last Labour Government lost its grip on the nation’s finances and was damaged after a welter of strikes in 1978/1979 known as the Winter of Discontent. A number of readers have commented to me that it just does not make sense to strike in the current economic climate with the risk to the employer’s business and jobs. As though the BA strike threat was not bad enough, we now hear of a threat of a first national rail strike in 16 years after the RMT union voted for industrial action. This lunchtime RMT announced 54% of members voted for industrial action over signal workers’ job cuts. Train operators have condemned strike action. Perhaps the unions sense that the government is a lame duck and will be desperate to find a way out, hoping they will apply pressure to meet strikers’ demands. But jobs are precious and the success of business is vital to see jobs created and protected. Strikes damage business anyway, but to strike in the middle of an economic crisis didn’t make sense in 1978/1979 and doesn’t make sense now.
The last time Britain was in really serious economic trouble under Labour was in the late 1970s. Huge debts led our country to borrow from the International Monetary Fund – the lender of last resort to poor countries. The Trade Unions caused chaos with strikes and the 1978/1979 winter became known as the Winter of Discontent. It was against this background that the public turned to the Conservatives. Part of the national mood was the understanding that Trade Unions funded the Labour Party and that the Labour Government was powerless to stand up to them. Gordon Brown has tried to give the impression that he opposes the BA strike as unjustified. Yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron asked whether the Prime Minister would advise BA workers to ignore the strike and work normally. He would not answer and wriggled uncomfortably as David pursued the point. This gives the game away – talk is cheap, but the Unite Union gives millions to Labour. If a strike is unjustified as Gordon Brown says, why not say to workers that they should work normally? The answer is that it would upset the close relationship between Union and Labour.
As soon as the weekend Opinion Poll showed more Labour support, the Markets took fright and the cost of Government borrowing went up as interest rates rose. For months, the Government has been shielded from the true state of business confidence in their abilities, because the assumption has been that the Conservatives will win and rein in Labour waste and overspending. The Opinion Poll showing just a 2 point lead has shaken them out of this cosy complacency. Now we see the professional investor’s view of Labour – disastrous! Several papers pick up on Ken Clarke’s warning yesterday that a Labour election victory would panic the markets and hammer the Pound. In the Mail, a leader explains why the markets don’t trust Labour. Ken is right to point out the blunt realities. Experts investing funds for their clients including pension funds know that this Government has spent and borrowed even when the economy was doing well. Now there is not enough money left, they are printing extra money to pay for their borrowings. It is like the person maxed out on their credit card simply getting another card and another card. Borrow, borrow, borrow…print money, print money… borrow, borrow is the road to national ruin. It is the historic Conservative mission to save the day after a period of Labour recklessness and we can rein in spending, achieving better value for the taxpayer’s money, without damaging front line services. Britain can’t stand another 5 years of Gordon Brown’s Labour.
The amount of money the Labour Government is borrowing is so massive that its hard to visualise it, but the Conservative party have had a good try with this picture of Battersea power station…
In the Pre-Budget Report today the Chancellor failed to take the tough decisions on spending before the election, and as a result there will be higher taxes and higher interest rates if they win the election.
At my meeting with local businesses last Friday Barclays gave a presentation on the local economic scene highlighting a modest revival with new business lending up. There are also signs of some improvement in the construction industry.
Today I am in Glasgow with the Work and Pensions Select Committee examining the effectiveness of Welfare to Work programmes in big cities. Clearly this is a big challenge in the current climate.
George Osborne made his keynote speech on the Economy yesterday and it seems to be going down quite well with the media. His speech was frank and candid in its tone; for those who missed George’s “astonishingly forthright speech” (to quote the Daily Mail), it started to spell out what measures a Conservative Government would take to get a grip on the national finances. Not everyone will be happy with the commitments (today the unions have come out against the promised pay freeze for public sector workers) but I believe that most of my constituents appreciate that when faced with a national deficit of almost £200 billion, we are all going to have to tighten our belts*.
I was especially pleased by his renewed commitment to re-link the state pension to earnings growth in the next Parliament in order to ensure a decent standard of living for all in retirement, halt the spread of means-testing and restore incentives to save.
George also announced an updated review of the state pension age, as recommended by Adair Turner’s Pension Commission. Given the state of the public finances and rapidly changing demographic projections, the review would consider whether the increase in the pension age from 65 to 66 should be brought forward from 2026, starting no earlier than 2016 for men and 2020 for women.
*Although Osborne did promise to protect the wages of those earning £18,000 or less. For those who did miss his speech you can read a transcript here
Do you share my concern at the way in which Final Salary Pension Schemes are being closed to new members and now in some cases to existing members? These are schemes which have helped so many of today’s pensioners to enjoy a comfortable retirement. Companies in a recession may see closure as a quick way of showing they are keen to cut costs and we can understand that. But it is time it was realised that future living standards for the retired will fall, unless action is taken. Since there is little sign of working age people increasing their saving for retirement and employers are ducking for cover, the future is likely to be employees and companies paying for decent living standards for the retired through higher taxes.
The Government has no stature in discussions with employers about how to fashion a way forward for Occupational Pensions, because Gordon Brown’s 1998 Pensions Raid ending the dividend tax credit took £5 billion per annum out of Pension Schemes. Having plundered the Pension Funds himself, he can hardly take the high ground now and his poor stewardship of the nation’s finances has led to Britain’s weak position in the current recession.
His Party was also involved in rubbishing the idea of a funded national state pension scheme with money set aside and invested to help pay future pensions at a higher rate, rather than solely relying on today’s workers’ national insurance payments to pay today’s state pensions (Pay As You Go). This idea was supported by Conservatives and enlightened Labour thinkers such as Frank Field. In Canada the Canada Pension Plan has money set aside to pay for future pensions.
We are all pinning our hopes on better up-rating of the state pension in line with earnings, reform of the State Second Pension and the new Personal Accounts, but I believe we will come back to two issues. We need to look at ways of making Occupational Pension Schemes fairer for employers, but without employees losing the security of a pension which gives a defined benefit and we need to look again at the idea of setting aside an investment fund to pay for better future state pensions.