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Here’s a motion which twice failed to get the support of ordinary members of the Labour Party and so didn’t make it onto the agenda for Conference 2012.

As a first move in establishing a priority list for current public spending, Labour marks the maintenance of public sector incomes above 100k p.a. and public sector pensions above 50k p.a. as the lowest priority. That is to say, in the event of any further reductions in public spending, Labour identifies the first cut:  a 100k p.a. income ceiling for public sector workers and a 50k p.a. ceiling on public sector pensions.

Here’s the argument:

Let’s be clear

This proposal has nothing to do with taxation. If taxes were raised or if a new rate of tax were introduced and if the money so raised meant that there would be no need of further cuts in public spending, then this proposal would be redundant. The point here is this: if there are to be cuts, what area of public spending is least important, what should be cut first? This proposal answers: if there are to be cuts in public services and/or the incomes of relatively poor people who depend on the state, then those cuts should be considered only after the incomes of the rich who are on the public payroll have been capped at an affordable and sensible but generous level.

 

The immediate background

Leaving aside revolutionary and populist posing, the bulk of expressed opposition to cuts in state spending has involved particular pleading.  Then our media – in making no demand that something constructive be said – have compounded the problem. Journalists and presenters fail time and again to ask the most obvious question: “If there must be cuts and you feel that ‘X’ has to be maintained, which areas of spending do you think are less important than ‘X’ and should be cut first?” The lack of stated priorities has ensured that cuts are spread and this has tended to copper-fasten existing deprivation and inequalities.

I have been arguing on FaceBook and elsewhere that the rich among our public servants are the least of our concerns and that income (to include pay, bonus, overtime, allowances etc.) and pension ceilings should be introduced before any other cut. While there has been negative reaction, there has also been support and some of the support has been to the effect that the proposition should be put to a Labour Conference.

 

A fundamental question for Labour at this time

Because revolution and populist posing must not feature in Labour thinking, a major and significant question looms, and it demands an answer now: What remains of Labour values when state spending must be cut? Two very old and basic Labour tenets begin to harmonise and form at least part of the answer. Firstly, while equality is central to Labour’s ambitions, the Party has been slow to emphasise the most crucial and controversial aspect of equality: equality of income or – at least – reduced inequality of income. The time is ripe to put that right. Secondly, Labour has always sought to defend the meagre incomes of the poor. Never was this more urgent.

A pay ceiling on public service incomes and pensions would

  • accept that money is tight and that we cannot have everything but that some spending is vastly more important than others, and lay down a marker that a start has been made to setting priorities for Irish public spending;
  • make savings in public spending such that vital services and the pay of poor and middle income public servants could remain untouched;
  • reduce the bizarre and shameful spectacle of rich people beside poor people on the public payroll;
  • place inequality of income on the public agenda;
  • make it clear that Labour in bad times and in good times is serious about reducing inequality.

 

Arguments against

There are of course arguments against. Actually there are basically just three arguments against:

i)             The fairness argument

ii)            The brain drain argument

iii)           The Croke Park argument

 

i) The fairness argument says that public servants should not be singled out and that nothing should be done unless all rich people are tackled. In a sense this is a “what about?” A “what about?” is very much a conservative position which hides opposition to a change by diverting attention to other – often larger – issues. In this case, limiting the income of rich public servants is opposed by diverting attention to the income of other rich people. In another sense it is a crazy distortion of the notion of equality because what it says is that it would be unfair to reduce the incomes of one set of rich people unless all rich people were similarly treated. That is to say, it is a demand that all RICH people be treated equally!

It needs to be emphasised that it is public money that is in short supply, that cuts are happening now and that clearly public sector pay can be cut. In other words, there is neither time nor compelling need to be concerned about other rich people.

ii) The brain drain argument takes two linked forms. It is said that a reduction in top pay among public servants would result in a flight of talent abroad or into the private sector. It is certain that some may flee. However, the idea of a mass flight is fanciful. There may – just may – have been a time when a dissatisfied public worker could walk and pick up a job in the private sector. That certainly is not the case today. Moreover, this is a familiar threat raised by the rich from time to time. Remember when bank bonuses had to be paid or there would be a flight of talent? It didn’t happen.

 

Another form of the argument suggests that a ceiling would prevent the recruitment of exceptional talent. This rests on an abuse of the word “exceptional”. A pay ceiling would not rule out exceptional pay for an exceptional talent in exceptional circumstances. It would control the income of numbers of ordinary, unexceptional, rich workers.

iii) It is pointed out that the Croke Park Agreement rules out a pay ceiling. This is true. However, it does not rule out talking about a pay ceiling. Moreover, the extent to which the CPA guarantees that a group of rich people stays rich needs to be discussed and addressed.

 

Summing up

  • Let’s face it: 100k or a pension of 50k would appear a king’s ransom to the ordinary people who are made to pay these rich people or whose services are cut to maintain them. No one could seriously argue that these ceilings are not generous.
  • A public servant or potential public servant so in thrall to money that they will not serve unless paid more than 100k is clearly “the wrong stuff”. Get someone who understands the meaning of public service!
  • We live today in the kind of times so strange and fraught that a proposal once thought unimaginably daring becomes ordinary and feasible.
  • While in government in a time of crisis and austerity, Labour desperately needs to rediscover its radical voice and fundamental tenets.
  • It is possible without upsetting the troika too much to use what sovereignty we have left to make a start on a less unequal society.
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