Blair faces battle over pay

If you really have to talk about anything make sure it is a subject that is uncontentious. One such safe subject during the recent campaign was workers’ rights.

In an era when parties fall over themselves to prove their business credentials, no politician would publicly claim what this country lacks is better and stronger protection for its workers. They would be howled down amid accusations of promoting red tape and undermining inward investment faster than you could say CBI.

And anyway, in our touchy-feely new world, why worry about a topic last in vogue when the Scargill-sourus and Thatcher-dactyl stalked the land.

Strange then that if Labour’s first days back in power have been underscored by one theme it is industrial relations.

Jack Straw’s first task as foreign secretary was to sign the UK up to the idea of workers’ councils. Letter writers to the Daily Telegraph were outraged.

Soon, staff in firms of 20 or more workers will have to receive greater information about their company’s plans for the future.

On face value, this is very sensible but not something that is common practice.

The unions have been restless too. Tony Blair has already received two threats to deliver on election promises or else. Rail workers have already committed to action. Doctors are restless.

Why is this all happening? Because the issue of manager-staff relations is as relevant as ever. Take the public sector.

The government is committed to reform. No excuses this time. It made it such a central theme of the election that it must deliver.

To do so means it must keep business onside while at the same time assure unions that the state sector is not being privatised.

It is not going to be easy. With its self-imposed restrictions on taxation, money has to be found from somewhere.

If that somewhere is business then the unions have warned there will be trouble. Pay in all sectors could now become an issue given the hefty salary increases for the cabinet.

It may be their first rise for years, but ministers have left themselves open to the charge of hypocrisy any time they are confronted by an inflation only pay rise. Just a few weeks into the life of the new government and suddenly it is beset by a real issue.

Shame it didn’t talk about it during the election.

  • David Harding is a freelance journalist.

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