Making the case against consumerism

In order to argue effectively against New Labour's consumerist approach to public services, campaigners must avoid several political cul de sacs.Catherine Needham shows the way

November 1, 2006
7 min read

One aspect of the marketisation of public services by New Labour, particularly in its second and third terms, has been its discursive emphasis on improving services for the user. Extracts from Blair’s speeches in this period (all available from www.number10.gov.uk), illustrate the point: ‘In all areas, what counts is what provides a better public service for the consumer’ (16 July 2001); ‘the key to reform is re-designing the system round the user’ (16 October 2001); providers should ‘no longer dictate to their users but give them power and choice over the service’ (3 December 2004). When he talks about wanting a market in public services, he stresses that this will not be a market based on purchasing power, but ‘a market in the sense of consumer choice’ (24 October 2005).

Thus the prioritisation of the consumer becomes the rationale for the broader marketisation process.The introduction of competition between providers, the creation of new market opportunities for private companies in public services, the withdrawal of state-run services, are all justified on the basis of what they will deliver for the user.

As Blair puts it, ‘The point, very simply, is this: the user comes first; if the service they are offered is failing, they should be able to change provider; and if partnership with other sectors can improve a service, the public sector should be able to do it’ (16 October 2001). As he says in defending the education white paper in the autumn of 2005, ‘The best local authorities already increasingly see their primary role as championing parents and pupils rather than being a direct provider of education’ (24 October 2005).

The advantage for New Labour in using a user orientation as the rationale for its public services reforms is that critics can be cast as anti-service user.

Those who argue against consumerism in public services can be backed into various traps, all of which can then be discredited in the following sorts of ways.

First, those who argue against consumer-oriented reforms in public services can be portrayed as producerists, defending unresponsive bureaucrats who ignore the needs of their users. Since the users of public services are often disadvantaged through ill-health, poverty or lack of skills, a failure to place their needs at the centre of service provision can be depicted as further marginalisation of vulnerable groups.

Second, anti-consumerism can be depicted as a form of paternalism, in which an elite group is unwilling to give public service users the sorts of choices that many people take for granted in other aspects of their lives. Instead, professionals are assumed to know best, and emphasis placed on bureaucratic assessment of need rather than on the ‘felt needs’ of the user. This kind of paternalism, denying the potential for users to exercise autonomy in key aspects of their lives, is also easy to discredit.

Third, resistance to consumerism in public services can be implicated in an unsustainable nostalgia about the postwar welfare state, harking back to a nonexistent golden age and ignoring the very real shortcomings of the post-war model from the users’ perspective. Even without buying into the Blairite caricature of the welfare state as an insensitive, ‘one-sizefits-all’ monolith, it is important not to end up as a defender of the pre- Thatcherite public services in all their forms.

Each of these three positions therefore represents a cul-de-sac, easy for supporters of New Labour’s reforms to discredit. To avoid being pushed into these problematic attacks on public service consumerism, it is necessary to identify more effective arguments against New Labour’s ‘user comes first’ rationale for public service reform. One such approach is to reaffirm the collective importance of public services, noting that they are about more than the aggregated needs of their users. The importance of public services as an expression of common citizenship and shared political project needs to be restated.

There are dangers here too, however – in this case of emphasising the collective to the extent of marginalising the individual. Most progressive models of public services recognise that alongside collective goals, public services do need to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of patients, pupils, passengers and so on. So a collective orientation is important but it is necessary to argue for it as a supplement rather than replacement for good individual care in public services.

There are three further arguments that can be made against New Labour-style consumerism in public services. These offer more effective tools for progressives than some of the earlier positions.

The first is that New Labour’s user orientation configures public service provision as an adversarial relationship in which consumers do battle with producers to get access to scarce resources.

Providers who in the past have ‘dictated’ to users must be disciplined and constrained. But we know that in practice successful delivery of public services requires high trust relationships between users and providers on the front line.

What’s more, the so-called consumers of public services often produce their outcomes – whether it is as NHS patients looking after their own health through giving up smoking and joining a gym, or through parents and pupils getting homework done at the weekends, or people sorting their waste for recycling.

These are all productive activities, and the people who do them cannot easily be cast in the passive role of consumer, separated off from other people who do the producing.

The second argument against New Labour’s user focus is that it legitimises reforms that, when given an alternative reading, are not about user interests at all.

Take city academies, so-called ‘independent state schools’ in inner cities, run and part-funded by private sponsors.

Blair talks about city academies as opportunities for ‘parent power’. But what he means by this is only that parents can express a preference to send their child to an academy – which, given that they are heavily over-subscribed, will result in disappointment for many parents. In all other aspects, parent powers are weaker in academies than in maintained schools – including reduced representation on governing bodies, weaker appeals processes for admissions, exclusions and special educational needs, and reduced capacity to withdraw pupils from acts of religious worship.

A discourse of parent power is here used to shield the transfer of assets and power to unaccountable business and religious groups, providing market opportunities in the state sector. The same discourse is evident in health where patient choice is the rationale for the appropriation of state assets by the private sector.

The third argument against the ‘user comes first’ approach is that it delegitimises the accountability of public services to anyone other than their users.

It valorises the immediate responsiveness of providers to users in a market place, and sidelines or derides forms of accountability to other stakeholders or to political representatives.

Even accepting the somewhat caricatured advantages of market responsiveness (and ignoring problems such as the market’s tendency to cherrypick desirable users), it is important to recognise that accountability in public services cannot end with accountability to users. Schools, for instance, play a social and economic role that goes beyond the interests of parents. The teaching of creationism in state schools, to cite just one example, raises issues that are relevant to the broader community as well as to parents. So we need to re-legitimise alternative forms of accountability, to supplement rather than replace responsiveness to users.

New Labour’s consumerisation agenda invites us to think about public services only from the perspective of users. We need to recognise why the government is doing so, to avoid the cul-de-sac of being anti-service user, but argue for public services that reconfigure rather than abandon collective forms of accountability.Catherine Needham is a lecturer in politics at Queen Mary, University of London, and a research associate at Catalyst


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