08 December 2011 3:40 PM

Clegg's olive branch to strikers

While Andrew Lansley was offering a new deal on health sector pension reform but sparking fresh anger from the unions, Nick Clegg has been out been out trying to smooth tensions with the public sector.

His comments are significant because they come in the aftermath of last week's pension strike - branded a "damp squib" by David Cameron - and George Osborne's fresh round of austerity which will hit public servants hard.

The Lib-Dem Deputy PM acknowledged public sector workers "bristle" at talk of paring back the public sector, and insisted rebalancing the economy was not "code for cutting them adrift".

Warning against re-opening old divisions, he said: "Many of our public sector workers are making sacrifices, and I am hugely grateful for it. And I am grateful to the people making sacrifices in the private sector too.

"And what will hurt both groups is if we now allow this debate to become polarised - as if our dilemma is helping the public sector versus the private sector; the North versus the South. Picking industry or picking banking.

"Because if we play into these bygone caricatures of the left and the right, if we allow our society to fracture into these camps, that is the surest way to drag the UK back to the 1980s."

I suspect there is a dual message here: one for the public sector, to say the LibDems feel their pain. And one for Tory Coalition colleagues, to say lay off the tough talk.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

15 September 2011 3:27 PM

Danny admits we are better off outside the euro

Breaking news ... Danny Alexander, the former campaign chief for Britain in Europe, has admitted that it's a good thing he didn't win the Battle of Sterling.

He 'fessed up in an interview with the Evening Standard, when asked if it was lucky that the pro-euro campaign did not prevail.

"I think there is no doubt at all that the flexibilities we have, not being part of the euro, have been very helpful to the UK in dealing with the economic crisis we've had," he said.

Asked if that was politico-speak for admitting he was wrong, DA responded: "Who knows how it would have un-folded if things had worked out differently. I'm still a very firm believer that our national interest lies as a wholehearted member of the EU engaging positively to get the best for Britain. That's what always motivated me and that has not changed one iota."  He did not, however, say he still wants to join the euro.

There are lots of other good angles in the interview with this unassuming Lib Deb star.  He tells the unions that the Government is making contingency plans to defeat the strikes; urges his party to stand firm with the austerity policies and the Coalition; attacks Boris Johnson over the 50p rate and rebuffs the Tory Right on repatriation of powers.

But I like his description of why being brought up on a remote island (Colonsay, pop. 110) made him the man he is today.


Joe Murphy

follow me  on Twitter  .... @JoeMurphyLondon




08 September 2011 3:20 PM

Towards a winter of discontent

The civil service PCS union, which went on strike with teachers and lecturers in June, has announced plans for another walkout later this year.

The news came on the same day that two other unions, Prospect and FDA, threatened industrial action in the autumn as well.

It is a clear sign that the negotiations on the Government's public sector pension reforms (pay more, work longer) - the latest round of which take place today - are not going well from the organised workers' point of view.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber told me as much in a pre-congress interview as he warned that strikes were likely.

"At the moment it’s an extraordinarily difficult situation where we are negotiating in good faith to see what the possibilities might be but there has been no indication from the Government of a real willingness to step back from these changes, and at the moment the course they are set on is apparently irrevocably committed to forcing these things through," he said.

Asked if that would lead inevitably to more industrial action, he went on: "I think there is a very real prospect that other unions will feel they have to respond in that way to try to persuade the Government to take a more reasonable approach."

Much of the bitterness is centred on the background to the pension reforms. With public servants facing a wage freeze and job cuts, asking them to pay more is seen as a "tax" on state-paid workers. Mr Barber was also critical of the Government's "whack" approach - just announcing changes without any consultation.

Add in to that the feeling that ministers are not prepared to budge, and it's a pretty volatile cocktail.

Mr Barber hates the phrase "winter of discontent", but we could yet be heading that way.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

23 June 2011 1:03 PM

Gove: heads' "duty" to keep strike-hit schools open

Many parents will back the letter sent by Michael Gove to headteachers today telling them they have a "moral duty" to keep schools open on strike days.

The Education Secretary wants heads to draw up emergency plans to stop school closures causing havoc for millions of families when teachers walk out on June 30 as expected.

Appealing over the heads of union bosses, he said: "My view is that we all have a strong moral duty to pupils and parents to keep schools open."

He branded the threatened industrial action as "not justified" as talks are ongoing between the Government and unions in the dispute over public sector pensions.

Mr Gove has the interest of pupils at heart but the Government also wants the public on its side as it heads into a potential wave of strikes this summer.

 Nicholas Cecil



20 June 2011 12:08 PM

Tough talk on pensions

As if the looming strike over public sector pension reform wasn't headache enough for the Government, plans to equalise the state pension age are now causing outrage.

MPs are demanding changes to plans which could see 500,000 women forced to work longer, particularly to help the 33,000 facing an additional two years of toil before they hit the garden (or the cruise ships).

Iain Duncan Smith is adamant the Government will stick to its plans, as is Number 10. But when pressed there appears to be a little flexibility - sources point out the Pensions Bill is going through the Commons where there are sure to be amendments put forward by backbenchers. "Obviously we recognise there is backbench concern," said a source close to IDS.

The likelihood is that some way will be found to reduce the impact on the hardest hit but only if it doesn't cost the Treasury too much money. Big brains will be sitting down to work out how that can be done, whether among MPs, campaigners or Whitehall.

Meanwhile the row over public sector pension reforms, and the likelihood of crunch talks breaking down, just keeps escalating. Negotiations are due to take place next Monday but some unions are threatening to walk away after Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander went public with the Government's plans on Friday.

Today Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of Unite, had some harsh words for the man known as Beaker. She said his intervention had left ordinary workers "completely confused", telling the Standard: “It doesn’t matter what you think about the debate around public sector pensions, they deserve better than negotiation by megaphone.
“I do think it is inhumane just to breach the normal protocol of negotiation in the way that Danny did, in particular since he says it was because the Government wanted to protect the low paid.”

Ms Cartmail says Unite won't walk away from talks if talks are going to take place. But she added: “We are looking for a commitment to serious and mature fact-based negotiations. We do not want to be trading ideological points - we should be beyond that.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse