Issue 254 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

The Walrus

Out come the progress-chasers

It's full speed ahead for New Labour's privatisation programme says The Walrus

Something which is going to become evident very early on in the life of Blair's second term is the quite shameless level of dishonesty and deceit which has been involved in concealing the government's true plans for the public sector from the majority of the electorate. Not that honesty might have been a very clever policy. During the course of the campaign, the evidence for a dramatic shift in the public mood against any more tampering with schools or the NHS became so overwhelming that, if the Blairites had owned up, they might have fomented an even bigger vote for a left alternative.

But it's one thing to deny parentage. It's quite another to claim that schools and hospitals are the government's top priority. Especially when you know what this means is top priority for constant, unremitting tampering from the private sector--on and on, until not a scrap of state provision remains intact.

Anticipating that they might need to come up with some pretty good justifications for any more fooling around with health and education, the government did indeed include a broad outline of the plans in the pre-election manifesto, which normally has about as wide a circulation as Fencing for Dogs. But when the Balkan War loving Guardian reporter Jonathan Freedland went to have a look he could hardly believe his eyes at the scale of privatisation being envisaged, especially after Railtrack and all the rest.

Blair himself gave very few serious in-depth interviews before the election, but one was given to Peter Riddell and Anatole Kaletsky of the Times. Under the headline 'Blair Looks to Business for Whitehall Fix', he told them that the main focus of the second term would not be on the improvement of public services as most of us would understand it, but on 'driving through' changes and reforms, on 'progress chasing' and on 'delivery'--in other words, on the very thing that public sector workers have had up to the back teeth and want nothing more to do with, thanks very much.

Unbelievably, the person apparently being lined up to take over as head of Blair's policy delivery unit is Lord (formerly plain John) Birt, former head of the BBC--whose departure from the corporation was greeted with great rejoicing amongst the workforce. Not much more than a jumped-up accountant, Birt was described by the playwright Dennis Potter as a Dalek.

Lurking in and around the new progress-chasing department are likely to be other luminaries such as Sir Steve Robson, head of the Treasury's public enterprises, privatisation and regulation group between 1990 and 2000, Treasury 'brains' behind privatisation of Railtrack, and the man most responsible for holding no quarter over the privatisation of London Underground.

Another one might be Robert Hill, a former local government officer and then Nupe official during the 1982 NHS strike who has since become Blair's most trusted health adviser. Coincidentally, he also used to work for Capita, the company which has emerged in the last year or two as one of New Labour's favourite private sector providers in health, education and local authorities (it was sacked by Lambeth after steering the housing benefit organisation to the brink of ruination).

Or maybe it could even be Bryan Sanderson, the chairman of Bupa, and one of the 48 business people who wrote to the Times supporting the return of a Labour government. Bupa can't wait to see the heaps of taxpayers' money being ploughed in its direction, the latest proposal from health secretary Alan Milburn for helping to bring people off the NHS waiting list!

Writing in praise of Labour's manifesto the day after it was published, Steve Robson most admired the way it had gone about debunking the myth that you could improve public services by 'throwing taxpayers' money at them'. As if. According to the Railtrack genius, the real problem with the public sector is 'the risk-averse mindset, which resists improvement to services under public sector management'. The public sector is 'very bad at change' he tells us, and 'risk aversion is very deeply ingrained among public servants'.

A man with all the compassion of a Captain Bligh, Robson recently moved onto the board of Partnership UK, the government body which heads up all the PFI initiatives. He's become worried that a bit of 'emotional exhaustion may have set in amongst civil servants charged with the job of driving through private sector initiatives in health and education--they might need pepping up by big business.

What they really needed to do was put a bulldozer to any opposition which might get in the way of, or 'water down' change. For instance, a private sector contractor 'might be told the terms and conditions on which he could employ staff, and another, that 'he might be invited to manage a service on the basis that some of the staff remained public-sector employees'. Well, we couldn't be doing with any of that nonsense, could we? Next thing we'll all be living under a Communist despotism!

What Robson (and Blair) are really saying is that public sector unions and their membership are the main obstacle on the road to progress and, one way or the other, they are going to have to be sorted out. The trouble is that so far the government's record on this has not been tremendously impressive. In the two weeks before the election it not only managed to take a good cuffing from workers in the Post Office over the latest plans for privatisation. Despite a hysterical anti-union campaign in the London Evening Standard, it was also forced to cave in to Aslef and the RMT over 'jobs for life' pledges ahead of the privatisation of London Underground.

All this on top of warnings from leaders of the British Medical Association and National Association of Head Teachers that the vast majority of doctors and head teachers were sick to death of 'reform' of the NHS and education, and a descent into 'Third World' levels of provision. Perhaps more importantly, even the normally pathologically loyal leadership of Unison and the GMB warned that they would not stand by and allow their (very large) membership in the public sector to be trampled underfoot by latter-day Thatcherite ideologues.

All of this, together with the recent election of left wing candidates to the leadership of some important unions, indicates that we are in for one of the most explosive periods of trade union militancy most of us have ever experienced, with real potential for joint action to keep public services in public hands.

The Walrus

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