The PM's Salary, Economic Heresy and Giving Up Radio 4

By Wilby, Peter | New Statesman (1996), February 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

The PM's Salary, Economic Heresy and Giving Up Radio 4


Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


How can the "big society" work, when voluntary bodies are being cut so harshly? You may get a clue from the title of a book out this month: The Road from Ruin: a New Capitalism for a Big Society by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, both writers for the Economist. Writing in the Times, the two explain that we don't need an "obsession with volunteering" or a "fetishisation of mutual societies". Rather, "the big society should be an opportunity to harness capitalism to make Britain a better place".

Bishop and Green pooh-pooh the idea that "local community activists" such as the writer Toby Young could start successful free schools. They "manifestly lack the ability or expertise". Instead, "chains of new schools" should be set up by Tesco. Supermarkets, with their track record of life-enhancing, mind-expanding, culturally uplifting activity and their scrupulous regard for pluralism, are ideally suited to such a mission.

Oh, all right, Bishop and Green didn't write that last sentence. They refer instead to Tesco's "large-scale ambition and business thinking". You couldn't have it stated more plainly. Even if David Cameron denies it - and even if he believes his denials, as I suppose he may - the big society is just an opportunity for big business to take over more public services. This is well illustrated by the likely fate of the Community Payback scheme, currently run by probation officers and due to be "competed" (as the government now calls "privatised") in 2012. The shortlist of preferred bidders includes Serco (annual profits: [pounds sterling]194m), Sodexo ([pounds sterling]648m) and Mitie ([pounds sterling]80m).

Level paying field?

More than 220 local authority executives, it is reported, earn more than David Cameron. Why is this comparison relevant? The idea that nobody in the public sector should be paid more than the PM is bizarre. The figure always quoted is [pounds sterling]142,500, though Cameron is entitled to another [pounds sterling]55,000 that he doesn't take because he's a multimillionaire. His real earnings - rent-free housing plus various allowances - have been estimated at more than [pounds sterling]500,000. He can also look forward to vast sums from lectures and memoirs after he leaves office.

I do not believe that the chief executives of Suffolk or Wandsworth councils have similar prospects or, indeed, private fortunes to fall back on. Council executives operate in a competitive labour market. Good people won't be recruited or retained unless they are paid something near the going rate, which has been absurdly inflated by the private sector. There is no market in prime ministers or politicians generally; Egypt and Italy may have leadership problems, but neither is likely to make offers to Cameron, George Osborne or Eric Pickles.

Wage slips

Do not be surprised that the government, aided and abetted by the Bank of England, is allowing inflation to rip. …

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