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Voters back Labour on public services as unions blame Tories for ‘months of misery’

More than twice as many voters now trust Labour to improve public services as the Conservatives, after the government finally backed down and agreed an improved pay deal for NHS workers aimed at ending months of damaging health sector strikes.

The latest Opinium poll for the Observer shows just 17% of people back the Tories on public services against 43% who would prefer Labour to manage them, after the government came forward with an enhanced offer last week.

The findings, which reinforce the view that ministers have lost the battle for public opinion over NHS strikes, come as the lead negotiator for the health unions accused the Treasury and No 10 of causing months of what she says has been avoidable misery for patients and workers, and called for a complete overall of the way NHS pay is determined.

Polling chart

With ministers in retreat, and teaching unions now also taking part in talks aimed at ending strikes that closed thousands of schools last week, the head of health at Unison, Sara Gorton, told the Observer that the public and NHS staff had suffered an “intolerable situation” that must never be allowed to happen again.

“This dispute could have been settled in the autumn. But for months the government refused to talk about pay, insisting another wage rise for NHS staff was unaffordable and out of the question.

“This failure to act sooner cost health workers significant amounts of lost pay on strike days and meant needless disruption for the public and an already overwhelmed NHS,” Gorton said.

She said that, ideally, the system of pay review bodies, whose members are appointed by government to recommend public sector pay rises, should be replaced altogether, both to speed up the process and ensure it is freed from political influences.

“There has to be a better way of doing things,” she said, adding that it had been clear for months that health secretary Steve Barclay had wanted to offer more to NHS staff but had been blocked by No 10 and the Treasury.

“A complete overhaul is needed. Ideally a move to annual negotiations – perhaps less frequently in more stable economic times – involving government, employers and unions,” Gorton said.

“It’s time to learn lessons, take the politics out of NHS pay setting and find a better way to reward the health workers who do so much.”

Having insisted that they would not improve on the recommendations of the NHS pay review body, ministers announced a one-off bonus to NHS workers worth up to 8.2%. Most health unions have decided to recommend the offer, which also includes a permanent 5% pay rise from April, with the lowest-paid receiving a bigger uplift, to their members.

There is, however, still uncertainty over whether the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, who made no mention of the improved offer in last week’s spring budget, is able to find the extra money or whether it will have to come from efficiency savings in the NHS. Government sources said discussions were ongoing. “It may be that some is extra money, and some comes from efficiencies. These are matters to be decided.” Existing Treasury budgets allowed only for the 3.5% as recommended by the pay review body.

Attention will now switch to talks between teaching unions and Gillian Keegan, the education secretary. The National Education Union held two days of strikes in England last week but says it will “create a period of calm for two weeks” and not announce further strikes as negotiations continue.

While the teaching unions will want an offer comparable to that for NHS workers, there will be an element of extra cash for health staff related to the pandemic, which ministers may argue should not be replicated for teachers.

In a further sign that government will come under renewed pressure to increase pay offers to striking workers, the RMT’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, urged transport ministers on Saturday to show the same “change in attitude” as their colleagues in health. RMT members from across 14 train operators were on strike again on Saturday as part of a long-running dispute over jobs, pay and conditions.

On Friday, Passport Office workers announced plans to strike for five weeks in an escalation of their dispute over jobs, pay and conditions. More than 1,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union in passport offices in England, Scotland and Wales will take part in the action from 3 April to 5 May.

But with the government now eager to end the wave of strikes, the British Medical Association is also hoping to open talks soon on junior doctors’ pay. The BMA has asked for a 35% pay rise to make up for real-terms cuts since 2008-09, which Barclay has described as “not affordable”.

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