Is there any part of Britain’s private sector that is free from corruption, mismanagement and blatant profiteering? The banks, G4s, etc, etc: day after day, evidence of the scale of the rip-off being endured by British taxpayers piles up. But are sufficient numbers of us angry enough? Seumus Milne writing in today’s Guardian claims that public opinion in Britain has always opposed privatisation. But:
after the G4S fiasco, even paid-up Conservatives are getting restless. The Tory MP Michael Ellis told Buckles the public was “sick of huge corporations like yours thinking they can get away with everything”. And the Thatcher minister William Waldegrave warned Conservatives in Monday’s Times never to “make the mistake of falling in love with free enterprise”, adding that people who believe “private companies are always more efficient than the public service have never worked in real private enterprise”. [...]
Milne reminds us of some recent examples of private sector disasters:
The G4S saga is only the latest in a series of recent outsourcing scandals: from the alleged fraud and incompetence of A4E’s welfare-to-work contract, to the “staggering losses” incurred by Somerset council in a disastrous private-sector joint venture, to the shipping of vulnerable children half way across the country to private equity-owned care homes in Rochdale. That’s not to mention the exorbitant private finance initiative to build and run schools, hospitals and prisons, which, it is now estimated, will cost up to £25bn more than if the government had paid for them directly; or the £1.2bn of public money lost every year because of rail privatisation and fragmentation; or the water shortage achieved in rain-drenched southern England this summer by a privatised water company that had sold off 25 reservoirs over the past 20 years while rewarding shareholders with £5bn in dividends.
Meanwhile, today the Liverpool radical magazine Nerve has this:
Former Labour Cabinet member John Reid who originally gave G4S contract for Olympic security is now a director at G4S. Teresa May has shares in Prudential, owned by G4S and Goldman Sachs have the most shares in G4S. How cosy!
The privatisation juggernaut isn’t unstoppable. Just as energy and water were brought under public control through the “municipal socialism” of a century or more ago, services and industries can be taken into modern forms of democratic social ownership today. But while unions can resist outsourcing on the ground and groups like UK Uncut take direct action against the privateers, the emerging consensus against a discredited neoliberalism now has to find a real voice in national politics. Labour frontbenchers, such as Maria Eagle and Jon Trickett, have started to float the case for returning rail to public ownership and a “change of direction” on public services. But after G4S, what’s needed is a political sea change.
Back in March, on openDemocracy, Mel Kelly described how, with precious little public scrutiny, G4S – the world’s largest security company – has gained astonishing influence over our government and our lives. Meanwhile – to take another example – in the Education section of yesterday’s Guardian, a revealing article explored the ever-growing influence of Pearson, the giant multinational that is the world’s largest education firm, on the English education system. Pearson is at the heart of what goes on in English secondary schools and FE colleges through its ownership of Edexcel, the largest UK exam board. At the same time, Pearson’s education publishing business, via the brands of Heinemann, Longman, and Edexcel publishing sell textbooks and computer-based resources to schools, parents and pupils. Since 2009, Pearson, through Edexcel, has also had a contract to administer the marking of Sats tests for England’s 11-year-olds.
Now Pearson is moving closer to the heart of English education, running and funding several government-sponsored inquiries into aspects of the education system, and, crucially, developing a computer-based curriculum – ‘the Always Learning Gateway’ – currently being trialled in secondary schools.
In other words, there is now a multinational company at the heart of the English education system which is gaining the position in which it designs the secondary curriculum, sells the educational resources to support that curriculum, and sets and marks the tests that assess student outcomes. The Guardian article quotes Stephen Ball, professor of the sociology of education at London University’s Institute of Education as saying: ‘I think it’s … an overall strategy: they want to offer products and services in all areas of school practice: assessment, pedagogy, curriculum and management, and they want to create the possibility for that through policy work. … It’s a very well thought-out business strategy. I think we should be thinking about it, because a lot of it is going unnoticed’. While Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance, which is critical of corporate influence in education, says: ‘This stuff frightens the life out of me. My concern is that business dictates the nature of education, and especially the aims of education, when it should be one voice among others’.
Stuart Weir has been issuing bulletins on ‘the full enormity of what is going on’ on openDemocracy; writing again in June, he spoke of ‘the huge expansion of privatisation’:
According to the Financial Times, Britain is poised “for the biggest wave of outsourcing [that word again] since the 1980s”. More than £4 billion in tenders are being negotiated this year, according to studies of contracts published in the Official Journal of the European Union and analysis of companies’ bid pipelines. According to analysts, the FT reports, contracts involving the prison service – which is going to be almost wholly taken over – police forces, defence and health are “coming to market this year”.
Three government departments – the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Defence and Department for Work and Pensions – are the big drivers, but the expansion in privatisation includes local government, transport and education. Local authorities are losing 27 per cent of their grant over four years and government is under increasing pressure to use the private sector in order to maintain frontline services in the face of the cuts.
In March, Weir characterised what is happening as ‘no less than a modern enclosure movement’:
Cameron and co – a group which includes Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander – and their two parties are engaged in the destruction of the historic postwar compromise between the public and private sectors with the wholesale transfer of public functions to private enterprise. Their project amounts to no less than a modern enclosure movement, in which it is not common land but what is still left in the public sphere as a whole that is being wrested from the people.
In his poem To a Fallen Elm that railed against enclosure, John Clare saw precisely how those who hypocritically promote the interests of profit before the community ‘Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free’. The poem concludes:
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom – O I hate that sound
It grows the cant terms of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right
It grows a liscence with oer bearing fools
To cheat plain honesty by force of might
Thus came enclosure – ruin was her guide
But freedoms clapping hands enjoyed the sight
Tho comforts cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the scite
Een natures dwelling far away from men
The common heath became the spoilers prey
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labours only cow was drove away
No matter- wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedoms brawl was sanction to the song
Such was thy ruin music making Elm
The rights of freedom was to injure thine
As thou wert served so would they overwhelm
In freedoms name the little so would they over whelm
And these are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger powers
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedoms birthright from the weak devours
George Monbiot, in another of his increasingly urgent missives from the frontline of modern encroachments on our commons and our liberty, wrote yesterday in The Guardian of the Diggers 2012, a group being hounded from land adjacent, ironically, to the meadows at Runnymede where the Magna Carta was sealed almost 800 years ago.
Writing this, a lyric by Joni Mitchell comes to mind. The other day I watched a rather good account of her life and artistic career, Woman of Heart and Mind. In part, the film touched on the albums of the late ’80s and early ’90s (albums such as Dog Eat Dog, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, and Turbulent Indigo) on which Mitchell expressed discontent with the way things were heading, politically, socially and environmentally. ‘Dog Eat Dog’ seems particularly apposite in these times:
Where the wealth’s displayed
Thieves and sycophants parade
And where it’s made
the slaves will be taken
Some are treated well
In these games of buy and sell
And some like poor beast
Are burdened down to breaking
Dog Eat Dog
It’s dog eat dog ain’t it Flim Flam man
Dog eat dog you can lie cheat skim scam
Beat’ em any way you can
Dog eat Dog
You’ll do well in this land of
Snakebite evangelists and racketeers
You could get to be
a big wig financier
Land of snap decisions
Land of short attention spans
Nothing is savored
Long enough to really understand
In every culture in decline
The watchful ones among the slaves
Know all that is genuine will be
Scorned and conned and cast away
Dog eat dog
People looking seeing nothing …