General election 2017: A case of electile dysfunction

Written by Dave Penman on 23 May 2017 in Opinion

Brexit isn’t the only difficult issue that next month’s vote needs to fix

It’s news that took many by surprise, despite the clear warning signals coming for many months. Yes, Partick Thistle have made the cut and are secure in the top six of the Scottish Premier League, our best finish since ’81! Oh yes and, of course, there’s a general election.

I’m not sure I’ve met anyone yet, of whatever political persuasion, who is genuinely excited by the latter prospect. The rationale for the election, strong leadership for Brexit, is not one that sets the pulse racing. So whilst politicians take to the airwaves setting out their stall on the NHS, energy prices or whatever, in reality this is a calculation about securing a freer hand in the tricky negotiations to come.

The reality of Brexit has always meant that, in all probability, some interim deal will need to be done. It’s too complex, with too many players who have too many agendas. The prime minister knows she needs political wriggle room. This will either be to make the concessions necessary to get the deal she wants – cue howls of derision from the hard Brexit mob – or see through the flak that will come her way if we do indeed leave without an agreement, or “Fuxit” as I like to call it.

But if, for one fleeting moment, we forget the strong leadership blather, this is a general election. The manifestos may be hurriedly published, but it is about more than Brexit.


Clearly if Labour win, we’ll see a very different approach from the current government. If the polls are to be believed, however, it’s the Conservatives who’ll win with an increased majority. In these circumstances, will the prime minister decide to tread a different path from her predecessor? Let’s not forget she unceremoniously dumped the other half of the Notting Hill set, so he could spend more time editing a free sheet.

We’re due to have our one fiscal event this autumn, and that could set the scene for a different approach. Much will depend on the commitments made over the next few weeks.

Revelations that the no tax rises pledge was dreamt up on the hoof by David Cameron to fill a gap in “the grid” during the 2015 election, demonstrate how significant and costly pledges can emerge during a campaign as a response to events. Nothing can be ruled out. Whilst I haven’t seen the Conservative manifesto yet, it’s unlikely to contain a commitment to raise taxes, but it might not contain a commitment not to.

Prime ministers also want governments and policies that reflect their vision – difficult to do when you take over mid-stream. The election may well give Theresa May the chance to re-shape government, rather than simply following what was really a policy of “Austerity First” (and you don’t see many baseball caps with that emblazoned on them).

Who knows? Certainly not me.

Everyone’s got their list of what they’d like a new government to do, but I do genuinely think there is an opportunity for the newly elected government to approach two key issues for the civil service in a different way.

Firstly, we are continually told Brexit is the key to almost every other issue. We need to get it right to secure our economy for the future. Indeed, it is the premise for the calling of the election. If so, then it is reckless and an act of wanton folly to starve the very departments that are critical to that success of resources. No more Brexit on the cheap prime minster, give the UK civil service the capacity and capability it needs to deliver the best possible outcome, you can bet the rest of the EU will.

Secondly, civil servants have already paid a high price for austerity. For nearly a decade the reality has been pay restraint, cuts to pensions, redundancy terms and a raft of other conditions. Meanwhile, the list of exceptions to the Treasury pay policy grows by the day as the civil service is unable to compete in almost any salary market. One in four senior recruitment competitions run by the Civil Service Commission in 2015-16 resulted in the post not being filled, mainly due to uncompetitive pay.

But it is more than this. The government as an employer has a duty to its workforce. We have gone beyond any temporary rationale of austerity. Civil servants at all levels are struggling to make ends meet as their pay has stagnated for almost a decade and this will only get worse as inflation outstrips pay rises. The message that they should be grateful to have a job is simply not good enough at any time, but certainly unsustainable over the longer term.

So, regardless of whether it will take strong leadership to deliver a successful Brexit, it will certainly require a strong civil service and that takes investment.

About the author

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union for senior officials


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