Blog: This cynical, divisive kick in the teeth

Chancellor’s pay freeze for most public service workers mocks the government’s commitment to ‘levelling up’ with old-style Thatcherism

Rishi Sunak’s spending review was a bit like old-style Thatcherism by numbers.

On the one hand, the big numbers to dazzle and try and convince us all that the Tories are about levelling up and giving us a chance to flourish.

On the other, the grim reality of a real-terms pay cut for millions who work across public services, with the added risk of job cuts further down the line.

Once inflation is taken into account, the chancellor’s announcement of an arbitrary pay pause means about £520 less next year for a nursery nurse, £659 less for a social worker and £510 less a year for a local government admin officer.

Even where there are exceptions to the pay pause, such as the £250 per year promised to those earning less than £24k and the prospect of a pay review body increase next year for NHS workers, its hardly fair reward for the incredible work people are doing during the pandemic.

And while there was cash announced for the NHS, local government, schools and policing, the devil is always in the detail. We remain to be convinced that this is new money, while there are already jobs being cut in local government and when Sunak and Johnson have a habit or recycling their earlier spending announcements.

What will make this all the more difficult to swallow for UNISON members is that it’s the Tories fighting the old battles again rather than recognising that we are in uncharted territory.

Pitching public vs private simply won’t do in the face of the health and economic crisis that we face.

Getting us through, will require a fully staffed, properly paid public service workforce – as well as measures to revive the private sector and get people back to work.

The two work together. Unity and not division is what we need – and the recognition that extra money in pockets get spent locally in the thousands of ailing shops and leisure, arts and hospitality venues that need to be saved.

True to form, the Tories argue that there is no alternative; that the only way to get public finances in order is to pile the costs onto the shoulders of our people.

But there are always alternatives and there are always choices.   Recent research by Public Services International, commissioned by UNISON, shows that transnational corporations and wealthy individuals avoid paying close to £30bn in taxes a year, which is the equivalent of:

  • 18.72% of the UK health budget;
  • the salaries of 840,000 nurses;
  • or 25% of the UK education budget.

We would all perhaps have taken Rishi Sunak a little more seriously today if he’d have talked about how he was going to address this injustice and ensure the tax dodgers pay their fair share to addressing the health and economic emergency we face.

This time last year, many of us were campaigning in the general election. Many of the public service workers in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats that we spoke to told us that they had felt forgotten – and were willing to give the Tories a try for the first time.

As the dust settles on this spending review, and those who have given so much over recent months reflect on the choices this government has made, it’s hard to see those voters giving them a second chance.