Belfast Telegraph

Can King get TUC on his side in these painful times?

By Sean O'Grady

Like a comic at the Glasgow Empire performing after both Rangers and Celtic had lost at home, the Governor of the Bank of England will be lucky to escape a hostile reception when he faces the Trades Union Congress in Manchester next month.

The brothers have already torn up their invitation to Vince Cable, now that he is a Tory collaborator; but they may not have forgotten Mervyn King's endorsement of George Osborne's emergency Budget (which was rather more enthusiastic than anything heard from the Business Secretary).

So Mr King will have to use his best material. Times are tough now, and Mr King needs to reassure the TUC that he is not the enemy. This will come surprisingly easy for him. Long gone are the days when the Bank regarded itself as the shop steward of finance capital. Today the Bank sees its role as protecting the economy from the banks, and the near £1 trillion the financial crisis has cost the British taxpayer in recapitalisations, rescues, subsidies, soft loans, loan guarantees and other support is as deeply resented in Threadneedle Street as at Congress House.

Mr King will also have to be frank with his audience about the emergency Budget. This will, after all, take £113bn in spending power out of the economy over five years, and see 600,000 public sector jobs go, the vast majority occupied by union members. The unions want resistance to the cuts; Mr King, acquiescence. The TUC sees the danger of a double dip as a direct consequence of the Budget; the Governor has said the Budget itself made no significant difference to that, and it lessened the probability of a full-scale British sovereign debt crisis, with all the appalling consequences that would have had for rates and mortgage bills.

Mr King will also risk being booed off the stage if he calls for further wage restraint, though the case he can make for it is powerful. Based on experience in the last two recessions (1979-82 and 1990-92), many more would be on the dole now if labour markets had not become more flexible.

So the fact that jobless queues did not lengthen still further is partly down to widespread pay freezes. Workers and unions have gone along with these — but for how much longer?

The Coalition has announced a pay freeze for public workers on more than £21,000, and not much for those below that — and all at a time when taxes are rising.

Why, Mr King will have to explain, should ordinary families have to make such sacrifices when bankers' bonuses are soaring and fat-cat executives are still paying themselves enormous raises? If Mr King cannot answer that, he will surely die the death in Manchester, even if he doesn't deserve to.

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