John Woodcock: Pensions strike is ministers' fault

If the outcome were not so important, the Government's approach to public sector pension negotiations would make a passable comic farce.

John Woodcock: Pensions strike is ministers' fault
John Woodcock: Pensions strike is ministers' fault

As it is, the ineptitude of ministers is no laughing matter. You could almost smell the hastily applied warpaint as they gathered in the Whitehall bunker to thrash out their battle plan. What we need, they mused, is a secret weapon to show these unions we mean business. Let's send in Danny Alexander.

One cack-handed speech pre-empting the negotiations, followed by a weekend of hasty recalibration, and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat maestros have put themselves on the back foot before the discussions properly get under way.

Faced by the first real test of their competence and resolve, it is as if these ministers have dusted off a Tory manual from the 1980s. A badly written one.

So we see David Cameron flanked by angry terriers on the Conservative back benches barking threats of draconian anti-union laws, and the crude recycling of press stories about union bosses coining it in.

It is necessary for the country to address the growing deficit in pension provision. Rapidly increasing life expectancy makes it ever harder to afford pension schemes that were designed when far fewer people lived long into their retirement.

But while change is right, no one should pretend it is easy for those concerned to swallow, and people cannot be expected to rejoice at proposals that will significantly reduce what they expected to receive.

These proposed strikes are wrong - they do not help employees make their case at a time when talks are still in their infancy.

But ministers who appear increasingly out of their depth must take a large slice of responsibility for the early faltering of the negotiations.

The public wants to know that the taxes it pays will be spent wisely and the public servants it relies on will be treated fairly. And it wants to know that the people running the country have the gumption to deliver that basic deal. It is not looking good so far.

John Woodcock is Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, and a former spokesman for ex-prime minister Gordon Brown.

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