I’ve just been watching a BBC News 24 report on the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review in which two reporters have been despatched to S.Wales and N.Ireland because, we are told, these are where the public sector is largest. One of these reporters (the one in Wales) then began asking a series of questions of the interviewee all premised on the relative size of the public and private sectors in that region (although, bless her, she managed in her excitement to mix the two up ‘Why is it that the private sector is so huge here…Why is the public sector so small?’ she asked; Er? Come again? Don’t you mean…oh never mind.)
Notwithstanding such minor incompetencies, thus do we see how government still has the power to shape discourse and how the news agencies, like little lapdogs, unthinkingly do their work for them by consolidating the frame within which discussion might be set. After all, the public sector versus private sector distinction is now being used ubiquitously by the news media, thereby doing some ideological heavy lifting on behalf of the government, enabling them to pursue their aim of dismantling the state.
It enables a politics of resentment to be articulated, so, for instance, public sector pensions are supposedly gold plated and must be brought down to the levels of insecurity and inadequacy enjoyed by private sector pension savers, rather than raising the quality of private sector provision; the whole argument rests on looking at exceptional pensions provided to those at the very top of the public sector rather than the average public sector pension of about £5000 per year. But since it seems perfectly acceptable to focus on exceptions to define the rule, how come no-one said that private sector pensions are gold-plated when the BP Chief Executive’s reward for abject failure was a pay-off of a £500,ooo year pension? By my reckoning, that’s 100 times more gold plated.
Likewise, public sector workers are supposedly much better paid than their private sector counterparts and much less productive, even though this comparison does not compare like for like – the public sector is much more professionalised, with more graduates doing higher level jobs than the increasingly casualised and exploited mass of workers in the nether regions of the private sector; even though most of the low paid work in the public sector has long since been contracted out to private sector employers; and even though the kinds of work done by those in the public sector is much harder to measure using the usual indices of productivity.
It all prepares public opinion for the necessity of the cull that is to come despite all the hardship and misery it will cause to so many people, and it is a classic divide and rule strategy the aim of which is to diffuse and weaken opposition.
But in the real economy, as opposed to that conjured up by the government and the unthinking media, there is clearly no proper distinction between the private and public sectors, and an expansion in the one does not always mean a contraction in the other or vice versa. One need only think of the damage being done to the construction industry, for instance, by the cuts in capital expenditure, such as the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme, to see how public and private sectors are interlinked and interdependent. Or, if that is too abstract, then think about this: I work in a university so I am a public sector employee, but when I wake up in the morning, the breakfast I eat is not produced by the public sector; the clothes I wear are not provided by the public sector; the car I drive wasn’t built in the public sector; the fuel I buy is not provided by the public sector and so on. Just because I work in the public sector does not mean I am therefore sealed off from the larger economy. And if I lost my job, I would not be able to afford so many of the things provided by private sector companies thereby reducing demand for their goods and services, thereby damaging them. Scaling back the public sector therefore can actively harm and reduce the private sector rather than create greater room into which it can expand. That is why economists warn against cutting public sector spending during a recession.
What is true at the personal and individual level is true of the economy at large; there is no hard and fast distinction between the public sector and private sector; one will not necessarily grow as the other shrinks. During an economic crisis (and Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary rather let the cat out of the bag yesterday when he said the economy is still in ‘grave danger’ thus flatly contradicting the Prime Minister’s claim that Britain is ‘out of the danger zone’) job losses on the scale proposed by this wretched and miserable government will harm everyone, whether they work in the public sector or the private sector. This nakedly political contrast between public and private sectors is a smokescreen; the only distinction that matters is that between those IN work and those OUT of work.