Public sector anger was a political time-bomb just waiting to go off
The backlash against the Conservatives over public sector pay has been years in the making. The prime minister and the chancellor must respond quickly or pay the price, argues Anushka Asthana
In early Autumn, 2014, I remember discussing the fact that the Conservative party had trailed Labour in opinion polls for two-and-a-half years with a senior Cabinet member at the party’s conference in Birmingham.
We were sitting at a restaurant near the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, where hundreds of Tory delegates had gathered, and I asked: “Why aren’t you doing better?”
After four years of austerity that had come down particularly hard on teachers, nurses and doctors, police officers, firefighters and so on, he suggested that my question ought to be: “How is it you are doing so well?”
The minister argued that there were more than five million public sector workers in the country, and pointed out that they all had loved ones, such as parents, spouses and children, who might share their frustration at government policy. That, he said, left an awful lot of people potentially very angry with the Conservative party.
The Cabinet member had outlined a public sector time-bomb, but it did not go off in 2015.
Instead it had an impact in 2017, according to Yougov, who say the Tories had a 16 point lead over Labour with private sector workers, which flipped to May’s party trailing Corbyn’s by 5 points with those in the public sector.
Travelling around constituencies across Britain, I was struck by what many of those workers told me. They outlined their choice as that of a Tory government that had loosened the austerity noose but failed to use its proceeds to offer them much relief – as opposed to a radical Labour alternative that was ready to turn back on the spending tap.
In fact, during the last leadership election for Jeremy Corbyn, and at many of his rallies in this campaign, I was repeatedly taken by how many teachers and nurses and fire-fighters and doctors I came across.
So while there is a lot of focus on the youth vote to help explain why Theresa May was stripped of her majority, while the Labour leader defied his critics to gain vote share and seats, this is a big part of the story.
That is why the question of austerity was raised more than once at the first meeting of the 1922 meeting. And the question of public sector workers is one that I keep hearing from Tory MPs returning to parliament. When I asked James Cleverly – the Tory MP for Braintree – about it for the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast, he described bumping into a woman coming out of a polling station on election day, looking sheepish as she admitted she had not voted for him. “See, I’m a nurse,” she told him.
“And in her mind that is all she needed to say. When we get to a stage where it becomes – certainly in her mind – inconceivable for a public sector professional to vote Conservative we have got to address that.”
One option is to defend continued austerity, as the Chancellor Philip Hammond has tried to do, claiming that he was frustrated to be unable to speak out more during the election campaign.
He has stressed that the Treasury – under his leadership – did loosen the grip, setting out new fiscal rules for a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade. But he has also made clear that there will be no backing down from this position, saying that stronger economic growth, rather than higher taxes or borrowing, is the way to deliver better public services and higher real wages. “I thought we had won that argument, but I learned in the general election campaign that we have not,” he said in his Manson House speech.
But making the argument for austerity is simply not good enough for workers committed to public service who have had minimal pay rises for years.
If May is really going to respond to the election result with “humility and resolve” and respond to voters’ demands, as she has claimed, then the priority must be a dramatic offer to public sector workers in the Autumn budget.
Anushka Asthana is political editor at the Guardian