Next Monday, midwives in England will strike for the first time ever. They won't be alone in taking industrial action. They will be joined by thousands upon thousands of nurses, paramedics and other health service staff. It's the first strike over NHS pay in more than three decades, and the first-ever strike by the Royal College of Midwives since the RCM was founded in the days of Queen Victoria.
To take industrial action a union has to ballot its members, and the RCM ballot delivered a thumpingly decisive result: 82% voted in favour of strike action, with 94% voting in favour of taking action short of a strike (for example, refusing to work overtime unless paid for it).
Why are midwives striking? Each year, the independent NHS Pay Review Body (the PRB) takes evidence from the government, employers, trade unions and others about how much staff in the NHS should be paid, and based on all that it makes a recommendation. It takes a range of factors into account, including what's affordable. This system takes the setting of pay out of the hands of politicians, and places it in the hands of independent experts. Every year since the PRB was founded in the early 80s, its recommendation has been accepted. Some years the government and employers grumbled that the pay rise was too high. Some years the unions grumbled that it was too low. But every year it was accepted by all sides. This year, that fair, independent, long-established way of doing things was ripped up when the government took the unilateral decision, now being implemented by employers in the NHS in England, not to honour the PRB's recommendation of a 1% across-the-board rise in NHS staff pay.
Midwives saw their pay frozen back in 2011, frozen again in 2012, before it rose 1% in 2013. If the typical midwife's pay had risen in line with prices since 2010, she or he would be paid over £4,000 more per year than they're actually getting. Despite that deep fall in their standard of living, what midwives and others are asking for to resolve this dispute is not a king's ransom; they are asking for just a 1% rise. That won't even keep up with inflation, but that's what we're asking for because that's what was recommended by the long-established, independent body that has the job of deciding these things.
We have the public on our side. We commissioned ComRes to poll the general public in Britain and, separately, adults living in the most marginal Labour/Conservative constituencies. They found overwhelming public support for the 1% pay rise: 80% of the British public, and 83% of those in marginal seats, would support the recommended rise in NHS staff salaries. In fact, in both polls a majority (51% among the general public and 58% among those in marginal seats) said they would strongly support the rise.
We even have rank and file members of Parliament on our side too. In a poll of MPs, carried out by Dods, 71% supported the recommended 1% increase. That included a majority of MPs from each party.
The argument comes back from those who hold the purse strings: there's no money. To which my response is: if there is no money for a 1% pay rise for NHS staff, how is there money for a 10% pay rise for MPs? If there isn't enough money in the health service, why are top NHS managers getting £166million in bonuses?
There is something particularly galling about seeing people like cabinet ministers and top NHS managers, cocooned by six-figure salaries, speaking in favour of and implementing year after year of pay freezes on people taking home a fraction of what they earn and who are struggling to get by as best they can on what little they have.
The demands being made by midwives and by so many other healthcare professionals are not outlandish. They are modest. We are not being unreasonable; indeed, we are eager to negotiate. There is time before Monday to find common ground. My door is open, to the NHS employers with whom we are in direct dispute, and to Jeremy Hunt, whose decision to reject the recommended 1% pay rise led us to where we are today - counting down to the first midwife strike in British history.
Methodological note: ComRes interviewed 2,039 GB adults online between 29 and 31 August 2014. Data were weighted to be representative of all GB adults aged 18+. ComRes also interviewed a representative sample of 1,000 GB adults living in the 40 most marginal constituencies where the Conservative and Labour shared first and second place between them at the last General Election in 2010. Of these 40 constituencies, 25 currently have a Conservative MP and 15 currently have a Labour MP. Each constituency is represented in the sample equally, with results weighted to be representative by of all adults in all 40 constituencies as a whole. The survey was conducted online between the 18 and the 26 September 2014. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Data tables are available by clicking here.