Unions edge ahead in pensions battle

Peter KellnerPresident
June 20, 2011, 5:14 PM GMT+0

The unions are edging ahead in the pensions battle, while the majority of Brits would stop armed forces, police officers and doctors from striking, our latest Sunday Times poll reveals

If Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, hopes to have public opinion on his side in his battle with the public sector unions over pensions, YouGov's latest survey for the Sunday Times will disappoint him. It shows Britons divided on the issue, but with the balance of opinion currently with the unions.

However, Alexander’s Liberal Democrat colleague, Vince Cable, could have greater success with the electorate should he decide, as he has threatened, to tighten the law on strike ballots.

On the broad issue of public sector pensions, we offered three options. The largest number, 38%, backed the Government position, that pensions are currently too generous and need to be reformed. But almost exactly the same proportion, 39%, said either that public sector pensions don’t need reform (25%) or are not generous enough (14%). A further 22% said don’t know. This is a large number for a major political controversy; it suggests that public opinion is not yet fixed.

We then explored attitudes to Lord Hutton’s recent proposals. His report noted that, with people living longer, the current pensions system is becoming increasingly expensive. He proposed that public sector workers should contribute more to their pension, retire later and receive a lower pension – albeit one better than most private sector workers on similar salaries can currently expect. We quoted Hutton’s comment that this would be ‘fairer to scheme members themselves and fairer to taxpayers’. We also quoted the comment of the TUC leader Brendan Barber that Hutton’s proposals are ‘not needed, and will be an extra tax on teachers, civil servants, local government employees, firefighters, nurses and millions of other public service workers’.

We then asked whether people supported or opposed Hutton’s proposals. Overall, 38% support them while slightly more, 43%, are opposed. Private sectors support Hutton by 46-33%. Not surprisingly, public sector workers oppose Hutton by a large margin, 66-21%. (If anything, the surprise is that one in five public sector workers back him.)

To repeat: this is a snapshot of public opinion in the early stages of what could be a lengthy struggle. Attitudes could change, as well as harden. But for the moment, the unions are narrowly ahead in the battle to woo voters.

The story is slightly different regarding the laws governing strikes. Most people – though not overwhelming majorities – think three groups should not have the right to strike: the armed forces (by 58-35%), police officers (by 57-36%) and doctors (by 55-38%). By narrower 50-43% margin, the public think prison officers should be banned from striking. Views are evenly divided on nurses, with 45% saying they should have the right to strike while 47% disagree.

However, most people reject the notion of extending strike bans to teachers, tube and railway workers, bus drivers, social workers, refuse collectors or people working for water or power companies.

So far, so good for the unions. But when we come to the rules governing strike ballots, Government ministers could marshal a majority for change. Just 24% back the present law, which makes a strike legal after a strike ballot, however low the turnout. A further 7% think the law should stipulate a turnout of at least one in four of those eligible to vote. But 59% want a tougher law: 24% think strikes should need at least half of eligible union members to vote, while a further 24% think the turnout threshold should be three-quarters of eligible members. Finally, 11% think all strikes should be outlawed.

It might be thought that most Labour Party supporters and trade union members would set their face against any tightening of the law. In fact, this is true of almost half of both groups. 41% of union members and 42% of Labour voters would like to see a turnout threshold of either half or three-quarters – or, in a few cases, want all strikes outlawed.

Again, attitudes could change if ministers do decide to seek a change in the law. But how far, and in which direction, will depend on the circumstances, the arguments and how effectively they are deployed. Neither side should take public opinion for granted.