Dave Prentis says UK’s biggest public sector union is prepared to strike on issue of pay and party needs to get onside
• Read the full interview with Dave Prentis
The leader of the UK’s largest public sector union has accused Labour of “avoiding all the big issues” and said the party will have “no hope” at the general election unless it adopts much stronger anti-austerity policies.
Dave Prentis, the Unison general secretary, said Labour should go into the election promising to abandon public service cuts and to ensure that all public sector workers receive at least the living wage.
In an interview with the Guardian, he also said he expected public sector workers to take more strike action in the future, probably over pay.
Although he was broadly positive about Ed Miliband’s leadership, Prentis, whose union represents 1.3m workers, making it the largest in the public sector, criticised the opposition for being too cautious.
“Labour needs to come out more clearly on what policies they are going to espouse if they get elected,” Prentis said.
“They are avoiding all the big issues. There’s no doubt whatsoever they want to avoid a discussion on privatisation. They want to avoid a discussion on public service pay. We won’t let them.”
Prentis said he was unhappy about the way Miliband and Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, had endorsed the coalition’s public sector pay freeze. He was particularly concerned about the impression being given that Labour would continue implementing public spending cuts if it won the election in 2015.
“To a lot of people it still sounds like they are going to be cutting public services [in 2015]. Now, they are not going to get support if they say that,” he said.
“By 2015 it’s armaggedon days for local government,” he said. “[Councils] will not have the money to provide basic services. And if Labour is going to be saying in 2015, against that background, we are going to cut public services even further, they’ll have no hope.”
Prentis also called for more clarity on the issue of the privatisation of public services. “I’ve got a lot of time for Andy Burnham, but there’s no point Andy Burnham saying he’s going to repeal the latest Health Act,” he said. “We want to know what they are going to put in place.
“There’s a lot of hard talking got to take place. The overwhelming majority of the public do not want their public services provided by public companies.”
Prentis said the Labour manifesto should contain a commitment to pay all public sector workers at least the living wage (currently worth £7.45 an hour outside London).
Opposition parties are routinely accused of not having enough specific policies, but Prentis said that, at this stage of the parliamentary calender, Miliband had reached the point where he needed to set out a clear agenda. Unison would not tolerate having key decisions postponed, he said.
“We need to talk this year about what we are going to do in 2015. I am not waiting, and my union is not waiting, until three months before the election and it’s too late to get any agreements on these issues.”
Prentis revealed that he expected his union and others to co-ordinate another national strike at some point in the future, probably over pay. “Pay, and the lack of pay and poverty, is shooting up the agenda in this country,” he said.
“People have been worried sick about their jobs, but the longer this goes on, they will want to stand up about their pay. We will be campaigning on the basis that at some stage we do move to an industrial action ballot on pay.”
Prentis also mentioned the possibility of Unison and the GMB, Britain’s second-biggest public sector union, merging at some point in the future. But he stressed that there were no current plans for it.