Labour out of touch over public sector pay freeze, say union leaders. Wording of wide-ranging motion passed by conference fails to match rhetoric from the platform
Ed Miliband and his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, came under fire at Labour’s annual conference as union leaders accused the party leadership of being out of touch with the plight of ordinary workers for backing the government’s ongoing pay freeze in the public sector.
A row first triggered nine months ago resurfaced on the first full day of the conference in Manchester as the Unison leader, Dave Prentis, conveyed the anger felt by public sector trade unions over Balls’s decision at the turn of the year to come out in support of the freeze on the grounds that protecting jobs was a higher priority.
Speaking to a motion arguing for an economic alternative to the government’s austerity agenda, Prentis said:
“To those who believe that driving down further the pay of public service workers will save jobs, I say you are wrong. Wrong morally and wrong economically. The reality is that our people have already had a 10% pay cut as wages have been frozen and the cost of food, petrol, housing has soared, and we’re still losing jobs – 700,000 of them.
“They want Labour in opposition to be in touch, to show that they are on the side of those harmed by the coalition. They want Labour in opposition to fashion an economic alternative that does not leave ordinary people in any doubt that Labour speaks and acts for them.”
The wording of the wide-ranging motion, which was overwhelmingly passed by conference, failed to match the rhetoric from the platform, however.
In a move clearly designed to spare the blushes of the leadership, a line condemning the prolonged pay freeze was watered down to say the conference “notes” the real-terms pay cut, and there was no mention of a call on Labour to reverse the policy.
Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, the country’s largest trade union, called for:
“no more false choice of jobs or wages”
and warned that Labour would need to draw up a “radical alternative” if it was to win the next general election. He said Miliband needed to give members real hope that the party under his watch would be different from the “neoliberalism” of the last Labour administration and from the coalition government.
Speaking to a motion on the need for banking reforms, McCluskey suggested the leadership was too influenced by Blairite wing of the party.
“I say to Ed: a public squeeze while the City continues to let rip is simply not acceptable. Asking the poorest for further sacrifices for a crisis they did not cause is the road to political ruin and defeat at the next election. It is time for Labour to once and for all turn its back on the neoliberalism of the past.”
The personal attack on the shadow chancellor continued when the GMB union leader, Paul Kenny, released a series of “policy errors” made by Ed Balls when he was in government, including financial regulation, PFI and public-private partnership.