Opposition to New Labour’s programme of marketisation has provoked a noticeable shift in the debate on public service ‘reform’.
In place of a supposedly pragmatic instrumentalism – ‘What matters is what works’ – there is now increasing obeisance paid to the notion of the ‘public realm’, with the rider that this should not be equated with the ‘public sector’.
It has been widely argued (independently of, and long before, New Labour) that an expansive concept of the public realm should recognise the importance of a host of non-state bodies and initiatives, such as charities, voluntary organisations and mutual and social enterprises. Progressive governments, it is proposed, should support this social economy as an integrated extension of the welfare state. They should also consider whether existing services might be better run as ‘mutual’ or ‘social’ enterprises, freed from ‘Whitehall control’ and shaped by their own users and staff.
This agenda has been enthusiastically promoted by bodies such as the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, the Co-operative Party and think-tanks such as the New Economics Foundation. And shortly after the last election Tony Blair ordered ministers to inaugurate ‘a step change in the provision of public services by social enterprises, charities and other third sector organisations’.
Important areas of expansion include the NHS, where primary care services are to be relaunched as independent ‘social enterprises’ contracted to local NHS trusts; housing, with a major injection of investment in registered social landlords expected; and local government, with the Local Government Association now suggesting that half of all council services could be outsourced to not-for-profit providers by the end of the decade.
The effects on the quality of services are hard to predict. Some fear that competition for contracts and dependence on private finance can force non-profit bodies to behave in an increasingly commercial manner – cutting costs and maximising surpluses by exploiting users (increasing charges and ‘dumping’ difficult cases) and staff (pay and conditions in the non-profit sector do not always compare well).
Whatever their explicit mission or governance structures, third sector organisations may need to mimic the private sector if they are to survive in a market environment. Barry Knight of Centris, a think-tank that has conducted an ‘Audit of Civil Society’, describes ‘a huge growth in the professionalised voluntary sector, largely due to government contracts and the adoption of private sector techniques in marketing and public relations’. Figures from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations confirm that under Labour the ‘third sector’ has grown significantly, but become more dependent on state funding, which increasingly comes through contracts rather than grants.
Such worries are fuelling resistance to the policy of turning public services over to voluntary or mutual organisations. In June this year, 84 per cent of primary care staff in Surrey voted against transferring to a new firm set up to spearhead Patricia Hewitt’s ‘social enterprise’ policy, with the Unison and Amicus unions citing concerns over quality of care and employment conditions.The handover of council estates to housing associations and ‘arms length management organisations’ (ALMOs) has also run into trouble with tenants voting against stock transfers and increasing calls for a ‘fourth option’ of direct investment by local authorities.
A PCS union report on the outsourcing of employment services concludes that ‘there are serious questions about the capacity of the third sector to cope with a large scale increase in contracting out and questions of whether this would be appropriate even if the capacity exists’.
PCS leader Mark Serwotka argues that ‘this is “soft” privatisation, with the voluntary sector opening up services for contests which can subsequently be won by the private sector’.
Sarah Gorton of Unison has made a similar point in relation to local government waste and recycling: ‘At the start people were well motivated and knowledgeable and set up nice little social enterprises. But within five or six years, a lot of them had been bought out. Now the services are run by multinationals.’ These are important issues, which are in danger of polarising activists and thinkers between those defending the public sector from marketisation and those championing third sector models.We need to identify criteria for getting the relationship right and avoiding the third sector being a stalking horse for privatisation.
A good place to start would be a recognition that complex services, in which strategic planning, efficient integration and the maintenance of universal standards are at a premium, are likely to suffer when ownership is fragmented, resulting in increased transaction costs and risking the emergence of unaccountable local monopolies. Much of health care, for example, would arguably fall into this category (as would ‘network utilities’ currently in private hands, such as the railways). In these cases public ownership is the best option – which is not to say that we shouldn’t always be looking for ways of decentralising control and increasing staff and user involvement.
On the other hand, third sector organisations are clearly important in meeting needs where the public sector has not shown the requisite flexibility or responsiveness. Where this happens, we need sufficient space for experimentation – as well as a public sector that can learn from and take on these new functions itself when it can perform them more accountability or efficiently.
The functions that should remain in, or be transferred to, the third sector, would be those whose effectiveness and value could be enhanced by independence from the state – initiatives facilitating the selforganisation of particular communities or vulnerable groups might be a good example. The challenge is to support such activities without rendering them dependent on government grants, or pitching them into competition for service contracts. And we must be sure that they are not merely offering a ‘cheap option’ at the expense of disadvantaged staff or excluded users.
What all this means in practice remains a matter for serious inquiry and debate on the left. But unless some common cause can be made on the basis of shared principles and commitments, the only winners will be those private interests who have proved so adept at exploiting our confusions and divisions.
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant