The scale of the attack was the first sign that Clegg, the deputy prime minister, could be a lightning conductor for some of the political responses to the cuts.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, today opened the annual conference of the public services union, vowing to back industrial action to fight the coming spending cuts. He singled out Clegg for having “lectured” low-paid workers in local government when the Liberal Democrat had himself “claimed for a biscuit tin”.
Prentis warned the government that it would not know what had hit it if it took on public-sector workers and cut services, pay and pensions. He said if Clegg came “for our pensions, then we will ballot for industrial action”.
He promised that Unison would not go down blind alleys or act prematurely, and that it had the resources and public backing to challenge the cuts.
Claiming his union enjoyed unprecedented strength in terms of membership and finances, he vowed it would build community alliances to stop cuts and to demand that city speculators paid the price for the cuts. He also said that only a Labour leadership candidate willing to fight cuts and privatisation would be backed.
He said: “Stop taking money from schools, hospitals, care homes. Have the guts to go back to the banks, the speculators, the profiteers, and tell them on our behalf – you created this mess, you pay for it. It’s not about looking for scapegoats. It’s about that fairer society we were all promised.
“Now, six weeks after the election, the Tories say they can’t ask big business to pay tax, they’ll discourage enterprise. They can’t regulate the financial system or there’ll be fewer jobs in the City. They can’t stop the bonus culture, or they’re penalising success. But with breathtaking hypocrisy, they’ll take away benefits, they’ll undermine our job security, they’ll let our communities take the pain while the City speculators get off scot free. The public sector [is] asked to tighten its belt, more restraint, ‘do more with less’. These pension myths are scaremongering. There are no unreformed, gold-plated pension pots. The average pension in local government is just £4,000 a year, dropping to £2,600 for women.”
Prentis said the government should not attack workers who saved for retirement.
His remarks came as Clegg was advised by Richard Kemp, leader of the Liberal Democrats in local government, to recognise that local authority pensions and pay were not “gold plated”.
In a letter to Clegg, Kemp has said: “In terms of wage increases our staff received 1% last year and 0% this year, compared to 4.5% on average achieved across the rest of the public sector. We must be careful that [staff] are not trebly disadvantaged if there are long-term wage freezes.”
Senior Liberal Democrat backbenchers believe the chancellor, George Osborne, has not been given ammunition by the Office for Budget Responsibility to speed up the cuts.
In a further warning, Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, warned the government not to raise VAT in next week’s budget, saying it was a regressive tax that would affect society’s poor.