Power to the people?
I have to say I’ve never been that impressed with Ed Miliband and freely admit to ‘glazing over’ when I vaguely heard him droning-on yesterday about ‘public service reform’ – why does it always need bloody reforming anyway? – but that’s another matter I guess. Anyway, we are all getting in election mode, so maybe we have to try and listen to some of this drivel because you never know, Labour just might be in the driving seat post May 2015 and we need to know what their thinking is if this Grayling omnishambles implodes somewhat earlier than later. We need to at least be aware of any alternatives to Grayling’s ‘secret agenda’ that might be out there. So, yet again I’m grateful to one of my faithful band of informants and newshounds for pointing out this article Neither Whitehall nor Serco, but local devolution: Labour’s pitch on public sector reform by Jonathan Derbyshire on the Prospects website:- “Ed Miliband is due to deliver the Hugo Young lecture tonight. His subject will be public sector reform – or rather, since that phrase has the whiff of the kind of New Labour “statecraft” that Miliband and Labour’s policy coordinator Jon Cruddas (whose fingerprints are all over this speech) want to move beyond, a “new culture” in public services. In an article in the Guardian this morning previewing the speech, Miliband identifies two failed models for the delivery of public services: “old-style, top-down central control with users as passive recipients of services”, on the one hand, and “a market-based individualism that simply transplants the principles of the private sector… into the public sector”, on the other. Public sector reform under New Labour left behind a dysfunctional mixture of both these approaches – the “outsourcing” of services to private providers combined with a highly centralised regime of performance audit. “Too often,” Miliband writes, “large public-sector bureaucracies have been replaced with a large private-sector bureaucracy. A Serco-G4S state can be just as flawed as the centralised state.” I examined the “public services industry” in this country, which is dominated by a handful of large and powerful firms including Serco and G4S, in a piece in the February issue of Prospect. As I observed there, even though the pace of outsourcing has accelerated under the coalition (driven by the Health and Social Care and Welfare Reform Acts, as well as the introduction of the Work Programme), some senior members of the government acknowledge that in many sectors the big providers like Serco and G4S operate an oligopoly. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, told me that he thought many government contracts have been too big, “which basically froze out small businesses”. But Maude also insisted, against accumulating evidence to the contrary (including investigations by the Serious Fraud Office of contracts held by Serco and G4S), that there was no “argument for slowing [outsourcing] down. We just need to be finding better ways of doing things.” Miliband, by contrast, is envisaging something very different. To adapt the old slogan of the International Socialists, you might summarise Labour’s new pitch on public sector reform as follows: Neither Whitehall nor Serco, but local devolution. Where “choice” for the citizen-consumer was the watchword of the Blairite reforms, for Miliband the key word is “power”: “We will put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services.” Labour, Miliband says, will “devolve power down not just to the user but also to the local level, because the national government’s task is to set clear national standards for what people can expect…” A word of warning here. Political parties often promise to give away power when they’re in opposition and then find that strangely hard to do when they get into office. At a recent conference hosted by Policy Network and the Institute for Public Policy Research, Gerry Holtham, a visiting professor at Cardiff Business School, suggested – and I think he was only half-joking – that any politician pledging to give power back to local government should in future lodge a £10,000 bond with him, redeemable only if and when the promise is kept. It’s time to see the colour of Ed Miliband’s money.” UPDATE: Read the full text of Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young Lecture here. Postscript:- On the subject of Serco, I see that they’ve just won renewal of their first government contract, as reported here in the Financial Times, even though the SFO investigation is still underway:- Serco has won its first contract with the British government since a ban on it bidding for public sector work was lifted 10 days ago. The outsourcing group saw off rival Babcock to secure a £15m deal with the Ministry of Defence over six years with an option to double the length of the contract. The work – a retender of an existing Serco contract – involves maintenance and support services at the Royal Air Force missile detection and early warning base at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire – one of the most sensitive military sites in the UK. Mike Murphy, analyst at Numis, said the deal demonstrated “the government’s willingness to look forward and be commercial, rather than political, in its contract awards”. Serco is still under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for allegedly overcharging on electronic monitoring contracts, while staff have been referred to the police for manipulating figures on transferring prisoners to courts in the southeast. Last week it was also revealed that the group had a multimillion-pound contract to manage community punishments in London cut short amid claims the scheme has been “a disaster”. Serco was due to run the £37m community payback project for four years until 2016 but concerns were raised when a BBC inquiry alleged that offenders were not properly supervised.Serco has denied the allegations and the Ministry of Justice said ministers wanted to overhaul all probation services nationally “to ensure a consistent approach”. An investigation into healthcare services run by Serco in Suffolk also last week called on the company to improve, although it found “no evidence of harm to patients”. Despite Serco’s troubles, the Cabinet Office decided two weeks ago that it was sufficiently cleansed of recent scandals to be allowed to return to bidding for public sector contracts. A further postscript:- It’s been brought to my attention that Stuart Hall died yesterday and a blog post on the Our Kingdom website includes this in connection with Ed Milibands speech:- “To Stuart’s dismay, it was Blairite neoliberalism which really took advantage of this opportunity to redefine the political territory on the ‘centre-left’. But what must never be forgotten is that it was Stuart’s version of what a ‘New Times’ socialism might look like that Blair and his colleagues had to foreclose and neutralise in the early 90s in order to make that victory possible. In my 2008 book, Anticapitalism and Culture, I suggested that the success of New Labour marked the final defeat of Hall’s New Left in the British Labour movement. Now I think that that was wrong. The measures to democratise public services, the explicit rejection of both bureaucratic managerialism and neoliberal marketisation, announced by Ed Miliband only today, suggest that Hall’s vision of a democratic socialism (one he shared with so many on the New Left, including that other great progenitor of cultural studies, Raymond Williams), may not have been defeated forever by Blairism at all. As cautious as that announcement may be, it may yet mark a decisive shift back in the direction which Stuart did so much to help us move.” Courtesy of Jim Brown at On Probation Blog