Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Plan B and beyond

Dexter Whitfield argues that Compass’s alternative economic strategy, Plan B, is not enough

April 9, 2012
7 min read

As 2011 wore on, the coalition’s economic failures accumulated in a growing pile of dismal statistics: the cuts were causing the economy to contract, debt to grow and creating a lasting damage to the social fabric. But what was there to challenge the coalition’s Tina (‘there is no alternative’) narrative? With the Labour Party failing decisively to set forth an economic programme that is either convincing or progressive, the need for civil society to deliver an alternative is clear and urgent. 

The most significant effort to this end so far is Plan B: a good economy for a good society, launched by Compass in October. It contains proposals to kick start the economy with a modern industrial policy, create a fairer tax system, increase state-led investment via a British Investment Bank, reform financial regulations and advance a social investment state. Supported by over 100 economists, it was born out of a collaborative effort that must be sustained as a means of providing intellectual ammunition to the anti-cuts movement. While there is much to be welcomed, it is important to also analyse where Compass’s vision falls short, and where more work needs to be done.

One of the plan’s most significant problems is its failure to acknowledge the extent to which marketisation and privatisation is embedded into our public services. This blind spot leads it, in places, towards proposing policies that would further embed neoliberalism. A rethink is therefore required on this issue.

Marketisation strategies

First, we need to understand the different marketisation strategies that have been employed against the UK’s public services. First and foremost, financialisation (individual budgets, vouchers, payment by results, social investment bonds) and personalisation (so-called individual choice mechanisms and consumer participation) are means by which successive governments have transferred risk, cost and responsibility from the welfare state to individuals.

With the continued commercialisation of public services and sale of public assets, privatisation strategies have mutated. Once privatisation reached a threshold at which further sales of public assets were too complex or politically controversial, the emphasis shifted to the more subtle and insidious process of transferring services to arms-length companies and social enterprises, and creating new markets in privately financed services. The ‘big society’ agenda, the expansion of academy schools and the current NHS reforms are continuations of this wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing strategy. The already visible effects are that networks of publicly-owned schools and hospitals have been fragmented, so that each becomes a stand-alone business competing against its neighbours, leading to increased commercialisation and detachment from democratic control. Alongside this, there is the whole-service, public-private partnership model that combines PFI-funded capital investment with the delivery of entire services in 25-year contracts.

Taken together in a broad perspective, these policies are the means by which capital radically reduces the role of the state, while enhancing the position of business with new markets, tax breaks, subsidies, regulatory concessions and deepened involvement in policy-making. The consequences amount to the de-construction of democracy at local, national and international levels.

Well short

In this context, Plan B falls well short of the aim ‘to replace the political economy of market fundamentalism with a political economy for a good society’, because it does not acknowledge the character and scale of the problem in this vital area.

It refers to social justice, equality, sustainability and changing our attitude to ‘work, money and things’, but the lack of a framework of principles and values relating to public services means these ideas would not prevent a return to ‘business as usual’ and could be easily appropriated by the right and business interests to continue the process described above.

With Labour refusing to develop strategies to democratise public services, public-sector transformation has been rooted in competition and markets as the only means of reform. Plan B does not challenge this approach to transformation but proposes to ‘switch investment from symptoms to causes’ by promoting ‘a new state that spends better’. It conspicuously ignores the problems created by commissioning and outsourcing.

The need for alternatives here is particularly urgent as the coalition’s ‘commissioning council’ model, which outsources or transfers virtually everything done by local government in terms of service delivery, leaving a small ‘strategic’ hub, is gaining momentum – for example, in Barnet, Cornwall, Essex and Solihull. While this development has received little attention, its consequences for democracy could be just as profound as any of the coalition’s other policies.

Instead, the Plan B report promotes the concept of ‘co‑production’, in which service users and front-line staff work in partnership to ‘permanently control costs and increase productivity while making services more responsive and democratic’.

There would be the basis for wide agreement on this if co‑production simply meant service users and staff collaborating in service design and delivery. However, the problem is that ordinary citizens as service users cannot ‘co-produce’ because they do not have an economic role in the production of services in the sense of control over finances, employment and management. Participation alone does not give users the power to effect change.

Social enterprises

The next problem with the Plan B strategy on public services is its argument that co-operatives and social enterprises can increase efficiency by improving motivation at work, promoting entrepreneurship and wider asset ownership. Transferring privately-owned businesses to the non-profit sector and collective ownership is a progressive move, but transferring public services to social enterprises is definitely not.

Social enterprises are being used to shrink the public sector, and history shows they become a pathway to full privatisation. The growth of leisure trusts, for example, arose not from entrepreneurship but from tax avoidance as local authorities sought budget savings. The employee-owned bus companies created in the wake of bus deregulation in 1985 were subjected to ‘bus wars’ and acquired by the major bus companies. Social enterprises spawned from the public sector today may well lead to similarly disastrous results, and will at least further embed the commissioning culture.

We need an alternative strategy that is more comprehensive and radical, rooted in a framework of socialist principles and values, and designed to reconstruct the economy, the state and public services. The state must have the resources and ability to fund, plan, provide and regulate its core functions: democratic and civil society; national and international responsibilities; human needs and development; economic and fiscal management; and the regulation of markets, firms and organisations.

Voluntary and private organisations and social enterprises have an important but limited role. International, national and local taxation should be the prime revenue source to fund public services and the welfare state. The user-pays taxation model that the coalition is moving towards will prove much more expensive than public provision through general taxation. It is inequitable, regressive and significantly reduces collective provision – in the long run it will lead to the demise of public services and the welfare state.

Plan B’s search for a system of measurement that goes beyond gross domestic product (GDP) and simplistic ‘happiness’ indices is important. Equally, though, there is an urgent need for current projects and policies to be more rigorously assessed for economic, social justice, health, sustainability and environmental impacts.

The means of production and service delivery are fundamental to the quality of work and life; hence the quality of inputs, processes and outputs are equally important as outcomes. In‑house provision is essential.

Marketisation should be dismantled and commissioning abolished to provide new opportunities to redesign service delivery. A new public service management with democratic and participative governance, public planning and investment must have a pivotal role in the reconstruction strategy. Alternative plans must be rooted in organising and action strategies, otherwise they have limited traction.

Dexter Whitfield is director of the European Services Strategy Unit. He is the author of In Place of Austerity: Reconstructing the economy, state and public services, published by Spokesman Books. Illustration by Cressida Knapp

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


10