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…”a loud, collective raspberry…”

Alistair Darling has a difficult summer ahead

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 24/06/2008


Alistair Darling’s appeals for responsibility “from boardroom to shop floor” in the current wage round are being met with a loud, collective raspberry.

Earlier this month, Shell tanker drivers held a four-day stoppage which caused a little inconvenience – and they were rewarded with an inflation-busting 14 per cent, two-year pay deal.

Yesterday, the Unison trade union announced that its 850,000 members working in local authorities have voted for strike action after rejecting a 2.75 per cent pay offer. The union says there will be a two-day strike next month, followed by as yet unspecified stoppages, depending on the employers’ response.

Unison’s head of local government, Heather Wakefield, said her members “deserve to be paid at least in line with inflation”.

It promises to be a difficult summer for Mr Darling. He says, rightly, that pay settlements should match the Government’s inflation target of 2 per cent. Yet union negotiators are not looking at a 2 per cent rise in inflation.

They see instead a Consumer Prices Index which hit 3.3 per cent in May and a Retail Prices Index – the benchmark used by many negotiators – at 4.3 per cent while, as we reported yesterday, the real increase in living costs for the average middle-class family is actually 6.7 per cent.

In these circumstances, unions are not going to submit meekly to the Chancellor’s blandishments.

Mr Darling is finding out that, while it is comparatively straightforward being the Chancellor when times are good, it can be devilishly difficult when times are bad. Always seen as a safe pair of hands (he is just one of three Cabinet members who has been there since 1997), he fails to inspire confidence, either in the country or the City – and it is confidence that is in shortest supply.

He may feel his lugubrious style matches the mood of the times; we suspect that people want something a little more upbeat from their finance minister just now – the sense, perhaps, that here is a man with a plan.

So it is little surprise that a whispering campaign has started. Replace the Chancellor, they say, and Labour’s political recovery can begin. The names of Jack Straw, David Miliband and even the arch-Blairite Alan Milburn are being mooted.

It is arguable that any one of this trio would make a better fist of the job than Mr Darling. Yet it is not quite that easy. The reality is that the Chancellor has inherited his economic strategy from his predecessor, who continues to take the closest of interest in Treasury matters.

Until the First Lord of the Treasury allows his successor some of the freedom of action he enjoyed when he was Chancellor, any change of personnel is going to make precious little difference.

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