New Labour has given way over talks, but it is clear what it wants out of them.
John Prescott’s letter to local government leaders says it is his “intention to begin consultations on new regulations, which will ensure the continuing solvency of the scheme”.
Ministers have insisted that ensuring the future of the scheme means reducing its benefits.
The broader plan to make people work for an extra five years was not dreamt up by a junior minister, but was driven by Tony Blair with the full support of chancellor Gordon Brown.
Last week’s concession signalled no retreat from that aim. It was about drawing union leaders into “dialogue” over the “reform of public sector pensions” so they are “sustainable in the long term”.
All wings of the government have placed their faith in the private sector, where the assault on pensions has gone furthest.
Every week comes news that another significant company is closing its final salary pension scheme or forcing its workers to pay in more for what they already had a right to expect in retirement.
There are no proposals from New Labour to stop companies doing this. Ministers talk of a “pensions crisis”, which is only a crisis because they are committed to the neo-liberal policy of allowing big business to take a larger share of economic output.
“So the unions will be told in these talks that we have to give up a lot,” says Lynne Chamberlain, a lecturer at Redhill College and a national executive member of the Natfhe union.
“We want to put our own demands on the agenda for these pension talks. One issue for Natfhe is the inclusion of agency workers in the pension scheme.
“There are wider issues as well. We should not abandon workers in the private sector. And there’s the scandal of the appalling level of the state pension and the fact that it is not linked to earnings.
“Such issues will be beyond the scope of sector by sector talks, but the unions as a whole should raise them.
“In the talks themselves every union needs to be crystal clear that the defence of the existing schemes is non-negotiable. We want improvements, not a trade-off that will leave people worse off.”
Unions will hold their conferences over the next three months, beginning with the teachers this week.
Activists are set to debate where the pensions campaign goes next and to table motions reaffirming policies in direct opposition to what the government wants to do.