In today’s climate it feels anything NHS related is charged with emotion. NHS workers up and down the country are in the grip of a pandemic that they can scarcely control. Stories of a lack of PPE grip the headlines with accounts from front line workers filling the headlines, restocking Piers Morgan’s ammunition for another strafing run at the government’s ministers. Indeed, the insistence that Priti Patel make an appearance at the pulpit got exactly what the media wanted – she is the cricketing equivalent of a walking wicket, she did not disappoint.
I am not here to defend Conservative strategy over the handling of the NHS. Personally, I’m not convinced throwing more money at something necessarily gets better results, but I do think we should have left the deeper aspects of austerity earlier than we have done.
What I am looking at is an example of using the media to wage Information Warfare in the current setting and I hope to do many of these types of articles over time. This is where the media is used to portray the image you or your party/business/group wants to be portrayed. Its not quite propaganda, but it certainly can feel like it depending on whether you’re reading The Telegraph or The Guardian.
I’ve seen it pop up in various media that the Conservative party “cheered” the capping of Nurses pay in parliament. There’s a mention here from The Guardian and the borderline Jacobite The National dug up the footage from 2017 on March 27th. Owen Jones shared a post that read “All the MPs who voted against giving nurses a pay rise in 2017”.
A retweet by Paul Johnson (Guardian Journalist) to Helen Whately MP’s video of her clapping for NHS workers has 11.8k retweets and 59.2k likes as he queried “Tell us now why you voted against a pay rise for nurses in 2017, Minister?” I’ve read at least one or two Facebook posts that confirm that, a nurse referred to it in one of her videos.
Did this really happen or has there been some bending of the truth. It almost seemed too good to be true. Thus with my scepticism radar fully engaged, was this genuine elation or an excellent example of Corbyn’s political manoeuvring in the media?
The 2017 General Election – May Day, May Day!
Theresa May will go down as one of the United Kingdom’s most unfortunate captains, indeed had Michael Gove not decided to shiv Boris Johnson in the 2016 Conservative Party Leadership race she may have been spared from such infamy. Alas, with a slim majority inherited from Davey Boy Cameron she called a general election to try and secure a tighter grip on power in parliament.
May and Cameron both had the same problem – they were both beholden to their Brexiteering right due to their slim majority. In some ways a slim majority is almost worse than a hung or coalition government. In the former you can’t get anything done without sometimes making less than ideal arrangements (like a confidence-in-supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s DUP). In the latter you can blame the Liberal Democrats and get Nick Clegg to immolate himself in burning petrol paid for by increased tuition fees. A slim majority means your own party can hold you hostage.
For both the main faction they had to deal with was The European Research Group (ERG), the party’s main Eurosceptic arm. There are various flavours of Brexiteer in here, but certainly less of the “soft” variety and more in line with a harder split. MPs “subscribe” to the group effectively making a loosely coordinated body within Parliament. Its hard to get an exact number of ERG membership in 2017 but Jacob-Rees Mogg was compelled by the Information Commissioner to release the address list of an ERG email in July 2017. Some current estimates have it at around 70 members.
So you have a slim majority of about 12. You may have up to 70 or so MPs that you have to consider seriously every time you propose a policy (i.e a larger break from the EU than May wanted), thwarting anything deemed “soft”. Despite your personal views you will now need to propose policy that caters for your right wing, otherwise you risk further defeat in parliament.
However, you also look across the House of Commons and see an opposition mired in its own mess. Labour are in disarray, with a similar group urging the party to lurch just as far left as the far right Tories; Momentum have been creating tensions with the Parliamentary party ever since Corbyn’s rise to power and its spilling into public perception of the party. At least in some respects the ERG had a significant number of themselves in the Commons, not fighting largely from outside the elected body.
With the party under attack in the press for anti-Semitic claims, further irrelevance in Scotland and Corbyn deemed unelectable by almost every outlet not named the Guardian, Mirror or Star there was a very real chance of getting a stonking majority. In one case polling three weeks to the vote suggested 412 seats, well above the 326 needed for a majority and a way to slay the ERG demon.
It was further buoyed by some divine intervention, perhaps a redemption in the making for the Vicar’s Daughter. Theresa May’s party bucked a 35 year trend by winning the 2017 Copeland by election in February – the first time a sitting government had managed to pull that off since 1982 . Surely it’s a case of call election, rock up to a few interviews, let the press do the rest, frolic in the fields and back in time for evening sermon.
To paraphrase Prussian General Helmuth Von Moltke, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” – its by far my favourite saying and works with almost every eventuality.
The Tory majority is lost, a controversial confidence-and-supply arrangement with the DUP is required, another step further right than May would like. If you could give that parliament a name it would be The House of Pain. Absolutely nobody won that election. On top of Tory woes Labour have outperformed an incredibly low bar but have still lost to an almost “lame duck” Prime Minister. The venerable SNP have lost 21 seats. The Lib Dems are just about still there. The Monster Raving Loony Party suffered a loss of 8 votes compared to last time. Nigel Farage didn’t even bother showing up.
The Queen’s Speech – Preparing the Trap
After the dust had settled it was time to perform what is normally a relatively routine procedure. The new Government composes a speech for the Queen to deliver to both the Houses of Commons and Lords at the opening of Parliament (due to a General Election or the annual state opening), and this outlines what the new government intends to deliver. It’s a tradition steeped in history, so much so the cellars are checked for gunpowder and the Queen will take an MP hostage.
Once this is done MPs will return to the chamber to debate the contents of the speech and after a period of around 5 days the speech is normally approved, subject to any amendments tabled. The Opposition have a couple of opportunities to table amendments to the speech, in fact in the very same speech Labour’s amendment forced the Tories to change their stance on abortions in Northern Ireland. The Tories changed the wording before the amendment was voted on. To stress this is par the course thus far.
Normally the Government will pass the speech without issue because logically most of the time we see majority-led Governments. Even in minority governments the incumbents would rather vote in their speech than risk losing power altogether, and its only ever been voted down 3 times. Indeed Stanley Baldwin in January 1924 was the last Prime Minister to suffer a loss at this stage – his minority government’s King’s Speech (due to George V being on the throne) was defeated and he resigned immediately, leaving Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour party to struggle on until October of that same year, Baldwin returning with a much larger majority.
Most see this as a ceremonial process and rarely are there serious challenges mounted – a much more effective challenge is to present a bill that has cross party support but an amendment at this stage could still topple government if perceived confidence in the government is lost. This parliament was one of the few times this strategy could have been used but it has its pitfall in that amendments do not necessarily bind the government into carrying out that policy, and incendiary requests will almost certainly get voted down.
The strategy was available because Theresa May was still treading on thin ice. She had already lost the majority, a misstep now could unravel the entire government. If the Queen’s Speech is not approved May would have faced Votes of No Confidence. The Tory party may have had to concede power to see if Labour could stitch something up with the SNP, Lib Dems and the rest. Almost certainly the former would demand IndyRef2. The PM was not in crisis territory but was certainly vulnerable, if really needed a three line whip will probably get her over the line.
The Public Sector Pay Cap – Laying the Trap
Labour, despite losing the election, have gained some momentum going into this parliament. After suffering some withering attacks in the past few months Corbyn has the conditions needed to be able to turn the screws on Theresa May. Labour know austerity is not popular and Brexit is causing headaches for the Prime Minister. The Labour MPs elected to that parliament were elected on the manifesto that said they would remove the Public Sector Pay Cap.
The Public Sector Pay Cap is not itself necessarily a cut and fast legal document, it’s more a policy that acts as a “cap” on the increases those in the Public Sector will receive in pay for working in a government run body. In 2010 public sector pay was frozen and since 2013 rises were capped at just 1%. In 2013 the inflation rate was 3.04%, in 2017 it was 2.7%. It is easy to see that a cap at 1% was according to this index not exactly in line with the economic conditions of the day. It should be noted however that 2016 inflation was 0.7%, and the year before saw no increase at 0%.
However its difficult not to agree with Labour’s position on this one and whilst a government shouldn’t be wasteful it also needs to be a good employer. An at least inflation matching rise is not asking much from the Government, especially as it’s the only employer in the country that can manipulate that index with a stroke of a pen (if it really wanted to).
The real opportunity here for Corbyn is that they know this cap is under review and unpopular in the Tory ranks. What better way to pin the Government than tabling an amendment that calls for an end to the Cap, which read as thus:
“(MPs) respectfully regret that the Gracious Speech fails to end cuts to the police and the fire service; commend the response of the emergency services to the recent terrorist attacks and to the Grenfell Tower fire; call on the Government to recruit more police officers and fire-fighters; and further call on the Government to end the public sector pay cap and give the emergency and public services a fair pay rise.”
The key phrase here is “fair pay rise”, and the most clever part of this amendment?
Almost every single Conservative and DUP MP had to vote it down to stop it passing, because the margin for error was 7. The great part about this strategy was Labour knew it was 90% certain to fail but the Tories had to make sure everyone voted against including any words that referred to removing the Cap. It didn’t matter if there were sections of the Conservatives that wanted it removed previously, here was a chance to fit the narrative Labour were seeking, a win in public relations that will be looked at later.
Voting Down the Amendment – The Trap is Sprung
Corbyn’s team have worded this amendment well that it will attract sympathy outside the chamber and tempt a few inside it. Amendments can and are passed, as noted above, in certain situations where there have been issues raised that have cross party support. However for all the niceties and genuine concerns of the first few lines, Labour have thrown in a grenade with the last line. The removal of the Public Sector Pay Cap was on the Labour manifesto – if enough Conservatives voted for it then effectively the Government is verbally committing to passing Labour legislation during this parliament. Of course, passing the amendment was never going to happen, but the public did not need to know that.
As we know there was no margin for error, rebellion could not be tolerated. This wording means in the end you be able to paint every single Tory MP as supporting the suppression of public sector wages once they vote it down, because if they did pass the amendment that may of triggered a vote of no confidence in their own government. Why would you have Confidence in your PM if you’re passing key opposition manifesto pledges!
Thus, needing to find a reasonable flaw in the amendment to convince swaying moderate Tory rebels to vote it down, the last line was identified as the weak point in the proposal. A fair pay rise is entirely subjective on what your opinion of “fair” is, depending on the point of view you are coming from. Is a fair pay rise a blanket % increase for everyone? Is it just for those in public services under an X amount of years, is it for those who have worked Y amount of years? Let’s not forget the real reason was that this was voted down was because it was a direct challenge to the government, but this wording provided the best and most reasonable excuse to convince the Tories and DUP that this amendment should not be passed.
A Quick Look at the Reasonable Excuse
Heidi Allen, who was then a Conservative MP, pointed towards the fact that a “fair pay” rise could almost certainly include Chief Executives, despite herself being against the cap. A 3% pay rise for a Nurse is entirely legitimate (I would personally go far further for NHS staff, and that was before COVID-19) but what about if you applied that to every staff member? What if you unilaterally increase Nurse pay by a set amount, what constitutes fair then? I have looked at two scenarios below:
The first (Fig.1) is probably the more straightforward approach. By implementing a 3% increase a Nurse would have a modest raise, whilst if that percentage was deemed “fair” under the terms of the Queen’s speech then you can see that there are relatively large increases for those at the top as well. I have used the 2017/2018 NHS England Annual Report to get the figures for the three named individuals. I’ve also used The Salary Calculator to assist in identifying what someone could roughly expect to see in monthly terms as the post tax effect of the salary increase (assuming no funky business with dividend or interest income). There are modest increases at all levels below, however for Simon Stevens (NHS CEO) the extra £2.5k a year may pay for a holiday. The Nurse would see a post tax increase £550 or so which would only just about cover half of their Council Tax Bill.
|Name||Role||2017/2018 (un-audited for named staff)||3% Increase||Monthly Take Home Difference Post Raise|
|Simon Stevens||CEO NHS||£190,000||£5,700||£260|
|Paul Baumann||CFO NHS||£205,000||£6,150||£272|
|Prof Jane Cummings||Chief Nursing Officer||£175,000||£5,250||£232|
The second example (Fig.2) is a more extreme take. Let’s say we’ve deemed that starting Nurses will receive a £3k boost in starting pay, that equates to a 12% in real terms increase. That extra post tax £1.3k a year will almost certainly go very far. However, if we’ve committed to a “fair” increase then an interpretation of the contents of the speech may (and a strong emphasis on may) have to applied to everyone in the service. Thus, those at the top end are earning £12k post tax a year more which is a disproportionately skewed amount of benefit. At the top end you could almost pay your yearly council tax based on the rise in one month alone whilst it would take you nearly 8 months at the lower end.
|Role||Increase of 3k for Nurse, Executives are flexed for “Fair” Increase||“Fair” Increase||Real Cash Increase||Monthly Take Home Difference Post Raise|
|Starting Salary Nurse||£26,000||12%||£3,000||£170|
|Chief Nursing Officer||£197,750||12%||£22,750||£1,005|
Of course “fair” in reality would likely mean an assessment of all levels of the public sector, targeting those that need it which would break the cap anyway. Parliament also have a report into the cap coming later in the parliamentary session so it would make sense to see what that says before acting.
In any case, the amendment was voted down by every single Conservative and DUP MP bar one. The small chance of a no confidence vote evaporates but the real damage has been done.
Aftermath – Corbyn Gets the Headline He Wants
So what was the point in all this then? From the outside it may just seem prudent by the Conservatives to vote this down, let alone necessary to keep them in power. How did this skirmish get perceived outside the chamber? This is why it was clever. Regardless of your political allegiance, the Tories, Labour and the SNP are all very aware of the power the media has on public perception and are very good at mobilising the English language for their own means. In fact this whole scenario, and the reason I’ve written this piece, is still having an effect 2 and half years later. What did Corbyn gain out of this?
Well, the very compelling headline of “Public Sector Pay Cap: Conservative MPs cheer blocking Labour bid to raise emergency service salaries” with additional video footage of cheering when the vote results were read out. In fact, as noted at the very start, this is still being used to beat the government with today. It should of read something like “Tory’s vote down removing public sector pay cap promise to save their Government”. Remember this was really meant to be a ceremonial process, and now despite Conservative MP calls previously to remove the cap, these people would be included on record as voting against removing said cap.
The other headline Labour get here is that they are then able to brandish the Tories as having performed a U-turn down the line when the cap is removed, claiming a victory for their persistence. As also noted, there was an ongoing review and the cap was removed, the Conservative party did actually vote to increase Public Sector pay (albeit not by much) beyond the cap in this parliamentary session, but again, as the damage was done it didn’t matter, it would always look bad for the government. To shorten all of the above, Labour knew the Tories would remove the cap, so they found a very clever way of negating any positive spin that would have occurred when the time came.
It’s an event that is still paying dividends today, regurgitated to slam the government in a time of national crisis. This is not to defend Conservative policy, but the difference between what actually occurred at the time and what is being perceived now is stark.
Why the Conservatives were Cheering
Simply put, the Conservatives knew exactly what Labour was up to. The Queen’s Speech is ceremonial, to actually compel the government to do something you would need to table a proper motion or bill to release the cap. Amending the speech was largely just for show, Labour knew it was very likely to get voted down although it would have been ecstatic if it really did crash the government. If you’ve heard the term political point scoring, this is an excellent example.
Of course the Conservatives are also masters of showmanship and probably didn’t help themselves. Guttural bellows of support for their beleaguered leader are standard in times of crisis, especially when the opposition have been playing political games, but it did help Corbyn’s narrative.
The government needed to get on with Brexit, it could not have yet another general election. Yes the situation was May’s fault, she called an election and barely made an effort, but in the national interest and especially during a largely ceremonial process there should have been no surprise in the tone of the response from the government of the day. Nuanced reporting would have reflected on this event to have been another day of political gamesmanship, but sadly we live in an era where there is a perception that outrage and extremism is the only way people in large numbers will digest current affairs. Newspapers gladly weaponize almost anything said by anyone, whatever the context may be.
Conclusion – Corbyn’s Genius is also is Downfall
The fact that now this event is still being used to hammer the government is testament to both the ability of Jeremy Corbyn as a politician and the effect of Information Warfare. Most people will look at the headlines, see the cheering and know the vote was to vote against the removal of an extremely unpopular policy. What is most likely missed and under reported is the explanation of the nuances of the Queen’s Speech and why the Conservatives voted against it. If the parties were the other way around in this situation you would expect the same result. There were both legitimate reasons to vote against the amendment, policy based and political, but that doesn’t stop the headlines. In reality a bill proposal would of both been a more serious challenge and shield the party from accusations of gamesmanship.
This is not to defend the Tories, they are just as good at it as Labour. Whilst anti-semitism almost certainly is and was a problem (why would Sir Kier Starmer apologise for it), it probably isn’t at quite the level the party claims it to be. Comrade Corbyn was a popular tone in the right-wing press, I genuinely don’t think he’d make us into a Soviet Republic, however this perception of being a far-left lunatic has never really left him alone. He is a man with his heart in the right place, although as noted can also be opportunistic and ruthless on the political landscape and he’s been right to call out Conservative failings in managing the NHS. His leadership of Labour may prove to have moved the UK’s dial slightly more to the left when it’s all said and done, and that he should get some praise for.
As with everything the reality of the situation is probably in there somewhere if you look hard enough for it. As for this particular event, in layman’s terms, you’re not the biggest fan of austerity, this headline pops up, it has enough “truth” to it to make it believable, I shall thus cast any Conservative asunder! Its stuck in the psyche of some and that’s the true effect of Information Warfare – it only has to be half true to be believed, and sometimes not true at all.
In the wider context the takeaway from this is that it is all well and good claiming to be a party of the people, to fight against the lies of the right and restore the public sector, in fact there are many accurate points the Opposition make regarding the current Government, but this sort of thing discredits any arguments made by resorting to tactics that are oft associated with those in Blue. Did it work? Well, yes it certainly had the desired effect in whipping up more furore, but did it and other similar tactics work at the ballot box? An unequivocal no.
It was a genius piece of political gamesmanship however all its really achieved is some angry tweets, articles and outrage when most people are turned off by that sort of thing. There’s a reason Sir Keir Starmer may be the man Labour needs. Its not because he’s more centrist, its because his politics of rational arguments and compromise (with note there is some disclosure to be made of the 2017 “sabotage”) may be more attractive to those who are wary of those who cry wolf too often, of people unable to get out of that almost tribal mentality. Swing voters have no tribe, their allegiance relies on the argument – discrediting the genuine issue around the treatment of the NHS will not help that.
As for the games played in the Commons, well I love this sort of thing, political manoeuvring, moves and countermoves. Tywin Lannister is my favourite Game of Thrones character for this very reason. I would like to think he’d have been impressed with this one.
So to answer the question, did the Tories really cheer to restrict Nurse’s pay? Its complicated, but probably on balance it is somewhat misleading to continue referencing to it, especially as they did vote to remove the cap a few months later. In theory, if you study word by word the amendment then in a literal sense you could make that argument.
However, the Reverend Hubert Braiser would likely tell his congregation that the written word and Jesus’ actions have many interpretations, that despite appearances, on the 28th June 2017 our parliament voted and cheered in delight at saving his daughter’s government.
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