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Enough is enough – the next prime minister needs a plan to get wages rising across the economy

3 min read

On Tuesday, Liz Truss’ regional public sector pay policy lasted a few hours before she was forced into a screeching U-turn.

The policy would have seen a pay cut for nurses, teachers and other public sector workers outside of London and the South East. And it would have encouraged a race to the bottom – widening regional inequalities, with local economies standing to lose millions of pounds.

It is of course a huge relief that Truss was forced into an embarrassing climbdown. But the fact she even considered such a reckless policy speaks to a consensus that has embedded itself across the Conservative Party when it comes to pay.

What Truss proposed stayed true to a long-standing Tory tradition: delivering pay cuts for working people. Time and time again, nurses, teachers, and paramedics have been told to put up and shut up with pay offers which made them poorer.

After 12 years of Conservative government, the results are stark. Nurses today are more than £4,000 worse off in real terms compared to 2010. And it’s the same story again and again across the public sector.

So let’s be clear, Rishi Sunak calling out Truss’ plan was nothing but rank hypocrisy. After all, this is a man who as chancellor refused to fund pay rises for key workers in public services that keep up with the cost of living.

Time and time again, nurses, teachers, and paramedics have been told to put up and shut up with pay offers which made them poorer

But it’s not only in the public sector where Tory ministers have spectacularly failed on pay. Workers in the United Kingdom are facing the longest and harshest pay squeeze in modern history. You would have to go back to the Napoleonic wars to find a longer period of wage stagnation. That’s pay loss of historic proportions. 

Working people have lost nearly £20,000 in real earnings between 2008 and 2021 as a result of pay not keeping pace with inflation. If anything is clear from the last twelve years, it is that the Conservatives are the party of pay cuts. And the Tory leadership candidates are not only telling people not to ask for a pay rise, they are attacking workers' rights to use their collective power to bargain for a better deal.

Both Sunak and Truss have pledged to attack workers’ ability to defend their living standards and bargain for improved pay. We have already seen pernicious legislation undermining the right to strike by allowing companies to bring in agency workers to break strikes. And now both candidates are threatening to erode the right to strike even further.

With peoples’ living standards on the line, the Conservative party is choosing to attack workers and side with P&O style employers who hold down pay and slash rights. This should come as no surprise.  The legacy of twelve years of Conservative government is nurses using food banks. It is endemic low pay and widespread insecure work. And it is gross excess for those at the top – with City bonuses at a record high, dividend payouts sky high and profits in companies like BP soaring to unthinkable levels.

Enough is enough. The next prime minister needs a plan to get wages rising across the economy. They should work with unions to deliver fair pay agreements to lift pay and productivity in low wage sectors. They should give the lowest paid a boost by increasing the minimum wage. And they should jettison the insulting pay offers for public sector workers – it’s time to give key workers the decent pay rise they are owed. That’s how you get pay rising in every corner of Britain.


Frances O'Grady is general secretary of the TUC.

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