I was speaking at a fringe meeting on pensions at today's Scottish Labour Party conference. Thanks to CfS for organising it.
I have previously explained why we are balloting members on pensions. In essence most of our members across the UK are being asked to pay more, work longer and get a smaller pension. As today was a political event, I focused on the politics of pensions.
Let's start with the Hutton report on public service pensions. Now in fairness to Lord Hutton there are a number of positive points in his report. In particular he buried the myth of the 'gold plated' pension, promoted by Nick Clegg, and argued for bringing private sector pensions up, rather than bringing everyone down. Other recommendations on governance and the factual analysis that shows pension costs declining have been helpful. Other issues like the 50% increase in contributions were formulated by the UK Government, not John Hutton.
However, I still wonder why he took the job. He was after all in the Cabinet that reached a UK deal on public service pensions in 2007/8. He then said he thought that deal did not go far enough and it was better he did the review that the usual Tory place person. Sadly, this is a classic New Labour approach to politics. Little grasp of political values and a 'what works' approach to policy. Little grasp of the political context that the Tories would use pensions as part of their ideological attack on public services. The report was also laced with other New Labour mantras, including ending access to public service pension schemes for workers who are privatised. Plurality of public service provision is more important than decent pensions.
So what about the current Labour leadership. Well I might not have agreed with Ed Miliband's position on the civil service dispute in June, but I could at least understand it. Negotiate before striking is what we do all the time. However, that is no longer the position. No reasonable observer could fail to recognise that we have been attempting to negotiate for months with a government that is simply not interested in meaningful negotiations. Ed did make the right decision in joining the TUC march in London and he should now make the correct call here if the trade unions take action on 30 November. Labour needs to be seen on the side of workers who are only seeking to protect their hard earned pensions. I was very pleased to hear all the candidates for Leader and Deputy Leader at the hustings this afternoon support the pensions justice case and give their backing to the ballot.
And the SNP position? Well unlike the UK government they couldn't blame the previous administration, because they were in power when the pensions deals were done in 2008. John Swinney's signature is on the LGPS (Scotland) agreement and I don't believe he wanted to backtrack, he is in my view a man who sticks by his word. He also well understood that whatever the temptation to levy unecssary contribution increases on workers covered by the LGPS scheme, this would rightly be viewed as a Scottish pensions tax. To do the same for the other schemes would have taken a significant chunk out of his declining budget, so he decided to bow to Westminster. He could have used the very large, and unbudgeted, surplus in efficiency savings. However, I believe politics took over here and the Scottish Government took the political calculation that they could spend the money to greater political effect elsewhere and blame the increase on Westminster.
So public service pensions is first and foremost a dispute with governments over an essential term and condition of service. Our members pay significant and growing pension contributions for their retirement. They do the proper thing in providing for them and their families. Unlike many private sector bosses who expect the state to pick up the bill while they profit and pay themselves massive pensions.
But it also has a very clear political context. It is part of the ConDem coalition's ideological attack on public services, reflecting their political values. For the SNP it is an opportunity to say again that it would all be fine if we were independent. The Labour leadership also has to stand up and be counted as being on the side of workers in struggle. No New Labour style woolly words or equivocation on this one Ed. Millions of workers expect better.