Thursday, 17 February 2011

I witnessed - and benefited from - the birth of public sector wage inflation

When I got a full-time job at the BBC in the mid-Eighties, it was very definitely public service – very left-wing, over-manned, unionized to the hilt (practically a closed shop) and riddled with Spanish practices. But employees were paid less than those in the private sector – quite a lot less.

In return, we had about the same level of job security as the Queen, and an extremely forgiving paternalistic management and support-service culture that meant you knew you’d be looked after if things went wrong. And the pension scheme was sensationally generous. And no one ever got fired!

For someone who’d spent the previous seven years as a self-employed writer dependent on hard-hearted New Yorkers I’d never met finding a space for my latest masterpiece on their crowded publication list, it was all a bit of a relief – and, as I was about to get married, security suddenly meant a lot.

Everyone in News was always talking about joining ITN or Channel 4 (and, later, Sky News) in order to secure a salary commensurate with their genius – a few made the leap, but the rest of us stayed put, grumbling away, but knowing in our hearts that we’d found a ridiculously cushy number. (I worked three-day weeks and there were all sorts of weird holiday entitlements which meant that I spent twelve weeks on holiday one year – quite apart from being able to pocket things like an “entertainment” allowance and being able to charge for newspapers.) 

The outside world seemed scarily professional and Thatcherite and cut-throat in comparison.

Then John Birt was parachuted in as head of News and Current Affairs (before becoming DG), and things changed. First, an already overmanned newsroom was flooded with extra producers, mainly Oxbridge types from current affairs, so that we’d sometimes spend a thirteen-hour day producing a ten second OOV - i.e. a thirty-word script over ten seconds of pictures on a story not important enough to warrant a separate reporter-voiced video package. (I spent the whole of one day dreaming up the plot of what was became my next novel.

At the same time as the amount of actual work we had to do dwindled, our salaries were suddenly increased way beyond the rate of inflation – I think mine went up 20% one year.

Suddenly, we were being paid the same as – or even more than - our private sector colleagues, but for less work, and without losing one smidgin of security: it still seemed impossible to sack staff who would have been frog-marched out the door of any non-public sector organisation.

This all coincided with the colonisation of News by Current Affairs, which tipped the balance away from old-style, horny-handed news producers to highly-educated Oxbridge super-brains. The newsroom’s traditional, Labour-supporting, up-the-workers, all-Tories-are-geedy-bastards Socialism gave way to what I now recognise as new-style, London-centric, pro-European, victim-obsessed, multicultural, internationalist, EU-supporting, Gramscian cultural-hegemony, all-Tories-are-mad Liberalism.

Yes, they were New Labour. Hairy-arsed, beer-swilling, sports-mad blokes (the “stupid tendency” as one senior political correspondent dubbed them) had been replaced by the soul-mates of Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson. The new breed lived in Islington and Wandsworth and the more salubrious parts of Ealing, had wives (or husbands) who worked in the City, holidayed in Tuscany, and supported football teams as a symbol of their compassionate classlessness – not because they’d grown up with the sport. To offset their pretended enthusiasm for proletarian pursuits, It even became fashionable to love Opera (which would formerly have been treated as an open declaration of rampant homosexuality). They routinely sneered at the SDLP to show how “real” their left-wing politics were – but they were fooling no-one but themselves: ideologically, they were the offspring of Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins.

What we were seeing was the gentrification of News. These new types tended to hang out with their fellow-movers and shakers in other fields: it wouldn’t do to admit that you couldn’t afford to send your children to acceptable schools, or drive the right make of car, or live in a civilised part of town, or that a shortage of wedge meant you had to go on holiday with oiks. And for that you needed money – and lots of it. Stands to reason! So senior management salaries went through the roof, and ours had to go up as well (to prevent resentment, I presume).

Within a year or two, the concept of accepting lower wages because you were in the public sector began to seem quaint: as long as someone  -anyone - in the private sector earned more than we were earning, where exactly was the problem? Besides, we had to attract “the right people” (i.e. Oxbridge liberals) – even though “the right people” had alwaysworked for the BBC, no matter what they were paid.

Of course, I benefited from these changes, along with much of the rest of the BBC – and the further up the greasy pole you climbed, the more fantastic and indefencible the rewards became. 

I presume exactly the same “gentrification” process was taking place at the same time across all those parts of the public sector which attracted Russell Group university graduates. Suddenly, those of us who were paid with money appropriated from the public without their permission and who enjoyed a measure of job security undreamt of in the private sector no longer saw these factors as a reason to curb our expectations.

Of course, the whole process accelerated when that greedy wretch Tony Blair became Prime Minister (accompanied by his lovely wife, Mrs. Marcos), and Gordon Brown became Chancellor (the latter seemed to work on the principle that the public sector was an even more vital component of the economy that the private – economics never was his strong suit). 

So good luck to Eric Pickles and everyone else trying to sort out the fantasy world of public sector pay. But the government urgently needs to figure out how to convince the public that whenever a library is closed or the frequency of rubbish collection is halved, it’s because a bunch of greedy, fat-arsed pigs can’t tell the difference between public and private money. 


  1. In the mid 70's I got a job as a porter/driver in the NHS.Coming from the private sector, digging roads and laying cables, what my Irish friends called 'ground-work', it was difficult to believe that such a cushy little number could be had for the asking and with job security too.
    When the head cook was'nt supplying the local 'greasy spoons'with NHS supplies he would join the 4 other porters for three card brag or poker in their lodge as exclusive and protective as any Gentleman's Club.Once in a while a polite request would come for wheelchair assistance or whatever,and this had to be a very ,very polite request indeed as we woz unionised see,and it would be more than their jobs worth to take diabolical liberties with us.
    The union was'nt for me and thank God I left otherwise I would have grown into one of those comfortable armchairs in the porter's lodge.
    Friday, February 18, 2011 - 07:40 AM

  2. I always assumed the rapid shrinkage of public/private sector pay differentials began in earnest after Labour’s ’97 victory with the forging of closer ties between the two sectors thanks to PFIs and the expansion of high level bureaucratic jobs in Blair’s Britain. Nice to hear the BBC was spending our licence fees wisely. By the way, what happened to all the old news types when the Bright Young Things invaded? From what you say, it doesn’t seem to have affected you adversely…or were you a BYT?
    Sunday, February 20, 2011 - 10:45 PM

  3. The Seventies were a strange time, Southern Man – the attitude you describe seemed to be utterly standard wherever there was heavy unionisation: a terrifying foretaste of what it would be like to live under a proletarian dictatorship. What’s surprising about it, looking back, is that the British – a fair and reasonable people – allowed themselves to behave in such an unattractive fashion for so long. Nowadays, nurses and police officers – whom we all worshipped back then – appear to have picked up the mantle of rudeness, unhelpfulness and laziness. And maybe that’s not so surprising, because their pay has increased massively, their hours have shrunk and they still have jobs for life – and those seem to be the main drivers producing poor service, rather than long hours, poor pay and job insecurity!

    Harumphrey, I’m sure public sector pay and the number of bureaucrats rocketed under Labour – after all, almost everyone in the public sector voted for them – but I detected a sense, towards the end of Thatcher’s reign, that the Wet wing of her party were embarrassed by the overwhelming nature of their victory over the unions (remember Francis Pym saying that a large Tory general election victory would be unhealthy?). For instance, money started pouring into the BBC despite the fact that it spent most of the 1980s acting as Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. What happened at the BBC from 1987 or so onwards proved you could bite the hand that fed you and get away with it!

    As for the old news types – Some of them took early retirement, others went to Sky, others just blobbed along for years, apparently unsackable, never being promoted, never getting the glamorous jobs: some were so efficient and sensible, getting rid of them would have been ridiculous – disasters tended to happen when there weren’t any old hands around.
    Thursday, February 24, 2011 - 05:23 PM