Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Pensions envy

Nigel has another good post about public sector pensions on Touchstone. It seems that, in public at least, the Tories are rowing back from David Cameron's comments on public sector pensions. He said quite clearly he wants them to go DC, and the same drumbeat has been loud and clear from the Tories in the policy world for some time. However it appears that, for now, they don't want to be too explicit about their intentions for fear that it may (rightly) scare off public sector workers from voting Conservative.

The more I think about this, the more I think that whilst it's a superficially attractive campaign issue for the Tories, it also poses quite a few problems for them. And, as I've argued before, it makes sense for the labour movement to starting thinking about the form of their arguments against an attack on pension rights.

First there's the issue of pensions envy (careful how you type that). The argument put forward by Cameron and his Higher Rate TaxpayersAlliance chums is an entirely negative one. It is not at all about what sort of pension scheme would be good/reasonable to provide, it is purely that public sector workers must have worse than they do currently. That leaves the Right open to charges of levelling down and, gasp!, the politics of envy.

It also paints Cameron into a corner of being anti-DB. Whilst those who aren't actually interested in pensions policy (ie the TPA) may not think this is a problem, I think it will alienate part of the small-c conservative pensions industry. A lot of their problem with Labour pensions policy has been that it doesn't give employers enough freedom of movement. But how is a private sector pensions managers going to be able to maintain a DB scheme, or even a hybrid, if the Prime Minister is arguing that DC is best. Where does it leave the likes of the NAPF?

Extending this point a bit further, everyone involved with pensions knows that there are big problems with DC - most notably the risk to individuals - that aren't easily solved. And whilst a lot of the industry thinks that public sector schemes do need some sort of reform, I suspect most would agree that the real problem is the poor provision now in place in the private sector, which some openly argue is a scandal waiting to happen. For Cameron to simply mindlessly promote DC for the public sector as the priority in pensions reform might lead people in pensions to think that he's a bit ...err... lightweight.

Therefore I think there's also a fruitful line of attack to be developed arguing that what Cameron has suggested is pensions vandalism - simply wrecking good provision with no thought to the future. I also wonder whether we might invoke the ghost of Dr Beeching - stick with me! I know there's no link between trains and pensions, but I'm thinking of a way of getting across the idea of short-term policy that knackers things up in the long term in a way that everyone can grasp. Beeching seems to stand in Britain's public consciousness as a warning against short-term cutbacks.

And this is all before the fact that an attack on the public sector schemes would galvanise the unions against it. It could be a protracted industrial battle.

For all these reason, I think this is a much trickier issue than right-wing pressure groups and columnists think it is. That lot have their blood up about public sector pensions, which makes it even harder for Cameron to change tack without looking a bit weak. Probably time to start building the trenches then.


Charlie Marks said...

Cameron's swerve to the right might just take him off an electoral cliff - plunging poll ratings await him if bailouts of manufacturing, retail, and possibly agriculture, are met with refusal from the Tories.

I think the label Do Nothing Dave will stick...

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