Thursday, 1 December 2011

Pensions, the parasites and the swine

To declare an interest at the outset, I have both private- and public-sector pension provision - so my views may be slightly coloured by personal prejudice and knowledge of the protagonists.  It also makes me qualified to have an opinion.  The sight of coalition Ministers vying for the all-comers Uriah Heep lookalike prize while berating public sector workers for being hacked off with a pay freeze and large increases in the contributions that they are expected to make invites the usual Pavlovian reaction.

Where the pensions are not funded (for example the civil service) and the ongoing payments are made from general taxation revenue, there is a correct sense of betrayal, as there is no guarantee of future payment beyond the best intentions of the state - not backed by the proceeds of either current or future savings - so all that the pension contribution increase looks like is a penal rise in income tax for those in the public sector (so far, so Osborne).  In other cases, such as local government, the pension pots are fully funded, and there was a relatively recent process of actuarial projection to ensure that they were sustainable in the longer-term.  So this again looks like a raid by the current government. 

What is cowardly about the government, including the craven Chief Secretary to the Treasury (bearing an increasing resemblance to Beaker in attack-dog mode), is that it does not even acknowledge that the union side has been prepared both to recognise the issues and negotiate around them.  We're all living longer, and therefore retirement in most professions should be delayed - providing that there's enough work to go round to allow people to enter the workforce beforehand - and that is the sole real issue.

However, the clowns in charge believe that the real opportunity is to stir up class envy.  The public sector does have better pension provision, and therefore these parasites who have sucked the blood out of the economy must be punished.  The profligacy of New Labour in mushrooming bureaucracy and increasing employment numbers has created an increasing liability, although it could be argued that this is merely diverting welfare payments from benefits to pensions (analagous to the Thatcher-inspired expansion of higher education to keep unemployment numbers down), but this is a slanderous caricature of most public sector workers, who may have been better at protecting terms and conditions during the neo-con ascendency.  To hear the Tories using the rhetoric of 1970s Trotskyites against often low-paid workers is surreal to the point where Duchamp would be chewing the carpet.

Labour undermined decent private-sector pensions with Gordon Brown's ill-timed raid on pension funds in 1998, which makes the current approach look even more vindictive.  What is not being given much airtime at the moment is the fact that much of the problems with pensions are caused by the performance of the crony capitalists - much of people's provision is tied up in financial instruments and the stock market - both of which have been under such fine stewardship for the last decade.  So the rhetoric that it's all the bankers' fault is correct in its diagnosis, but incorrect in its analysis - the truth is that everyone's retirement is being blighted by the deregulation, greed and selfishness that Osborne and his clique personify.

Were I a conspiracy theorist, I would imagine that the timing of the PBR, either the pre-budget report or panic-beridden rhetoric to taste, was designed to fan the flames yet further.  Continued pay freezes in the public sector and further job losses, against a background of the collapse of any growth agenda and a few bones tossed out towards our decrepit infrastructure, do not indicate any desire to propitiate the public sector that drives the services that Dave believes are so fundamental.  His slimy front-man act does not fool those of us who can see that the New Labour client state of outsourcing and unaccountability bubbles profitably away out of general scrutiny.

The only way this circle can be squared would be through growth, that will reduce the National Debt and provide more wealth to the wider economy.  The Tories have no idea about how to achieve this - and so they demonise the public sector workforce and anyone who stands in the way of their "reform", whilst spouting infantile slogans about the common interest in being in this together.  They're aware that this is failing and are now attacking the Liberals and marginalisng them, which suggests that Clegg and Cable should go on the offensive as the right-wing seeks to propitiate its natural constituency - demonstrating both that coalition politics is about compromise, and honouring the genuine issues of social cohesion and fairness that are currently submerged under slimy double-speak.

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