Now is the Winter of our Discontent!!

At some time before or during a General Election Keir Starmer will have to come off the fence and talk about the big changes in the way we run our public and private sectors that are being shown up by the rash of strikes in the Country at present.

Almost everyone seems to be on strike or threatening strike action at the moment. Our postal staff, Border Force reps, various parts of the NHS and of course the long running dispute on the trains. I find it fascinating that Labour does not know how to react to the disputes. One the one had they express sympathy with the strikers and then threaten to remove the whip from those who join the picket lines.

In the NHS disputes they seem to be able to hit out at both management and strikers at the same time disappointing most and satisfying no one.

Dr Emma Runswick, deputy chair of council at the BMA, called the Labour MP Shadow Health Secretary’s comments “incredibly disappointing”.

“The anger for that crisis should be directed squarely at the Government and their failure to invest, not at those who work in the NHS or the unions who represent them,” she said.

“It wasn’t so long ago that Mr Streeting and the Labour Party were clapping healthcare workers for their contributions during the pandemic, so to hear them now accusing staff of a ‘something for nothing’ culture and potentially supporting further real-terms pay cuts will leave many staff extremely concerned.”

I agree with her. The problem is that the Labour Party are confusing two quite different issues. On the one hand there is the need to ensure that workers, many of them in the lower levels of payment get paid adequately at a time of great financial turmoil. Most workers are accepting lower real wages at a time of rampant inflation. Council staff have accepted a 5.5% pay increase although there is a weighting of this which reflects more pay for the lowest wage levels.

This is at a time when inflation has been running at twice that and the signs that the inflation rate will abate is small indeed. Workers are being realistic but hard at the same time. Real term wages for most in the public sector in particular have continued to fall below inflation for some years. At the same time the conditions in which people work have also dropped away. Too many people cannot rely on a regular income although they have regular bills such as mortgages to pay.

Working people’s wages need protecting. The alternative is actually more costs to the public sector as people become more reliant on benefits or become homeless. Too many employers get away with low wages because the state will pick up the slack. Too many of them take their inflated profits elsewhere to avoid UK tax. The current furore over the loathsome Baroness Mone is perhaps the most obvious and egregious example of this but there are many more.

Windfall taxes should be able to pick up most of the strain in the short term allied with proper taxation of those who make their money here but spirit it away to avoid paying their fair whack of tax. Workers are suffering because of bad political judgements over the EU and in the very short term by the wretched Trussonomics.

On the other hand, what Labour cannot or, perhaps, will not do is actually say what reforms are necessary and what they would do about them.

It has recently been calculated that half the inflation that we are facing has been caused by us leaving the single market and the EU. These are often thought to be the same thing but they they are not. Even if Labour do not have the cojones to state simply that we should re-join the EU they could much more simply say that we will re-join the single market. Just saying it and starting the process off would have a huge beneficial inflationary impact.

House price inflation has got out of hand. Attempts by successive governments to stimulate the market by reductions in stamp duty and special schemes offering a subsidy for first time buyers has caused short term gain in the number of properties entering the market but long-term pain as existing home owners pushed up sales prices to match the subsidy available.

The NHS will eventually fall over unless there is a reform of the way that we spend money. Much more needs to be spent on public health and social care. 10%+ of beds are filled with people with obesity problems; 10%+ are followed with people with drug, tobacco and alcohol problems; 10%+ are filled with people who are fit but cannot go back to their own home for care or physical reasons. Deal with those issues which are relatively cheap to deal with and the NHS would have a fighting chance of meeting unavoidable illnesses which happen to all of us.

The bullet needs to be bitten in terms of rail reform. The rail user companies are feather-bedded. They have been divorced from reality by government handouts which are not targeted to the needs of the passengers but the profits of the companies, many of which, as in Avanti West Coast, are national concerns from other parts of Europe. The operating fat needs to be sorted out and targets set which mean something and are enforced.

I could go on. Every industry needs to change as circumstances change. The Trades Unions seem to be more up for real change than either management or the Labour Party. Do Labour not have a modern up to date industrial strategy for the commercial and private sectors? Do they not have an understanding of what needs to be done in the public sector including the NHS? They do not appear to have. Or, perhaps, as in the case of the EU, they do know but are not prepared to say so as they think it might damage their electoral prospects.

Now is the time for both Liberal Democrat and Labour Parties to be absolutely clear and positive about both the problems that the UK faces and what should be done about them. It is abundantly clear now that the Tories are finished for a generation. Opinion polls and parliamentary and local election results show that conclusively. The time for timidity is over. The time for clarity is upon us.

I am convinced that if both the main opposition parties show courage and clarity the people of the UK will respond positively whenever the Tory Party can be persuaded to end their money-making schemes and face the people. Bring it on!


About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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