Beyond the market, below the radar

Barry Winter reports on a Catalyst conference that raised more questions than it answered

Billed by Catalyst as a ‘major pre-election conference’ on renewing the public services, this event – ‘Beyond the Market: Public services in the twenty-first century’ – aimed to create ‘a positive agenda and a new progressive alliance’ on the left. It sought to draw together a broad range of people and organisations concerned about the future of the public services under a third-term Labour government.

At one level, the conference successfully attracted a wide range of people but not in significant numbers. In spite of an impressive array of speakers and the backing of 30 campaigns and organisations, including six trade unions, only about 150 people were present. This failure to woo a bigger audience is not meant as a criticism of its efforts or the deliberations. It merely recognises the relatively weak condition today of what might be called the progressive left.

There is, of course, the alternative attraction, the new Labour Representation Committee (LRC). Here, judging by its recent publicity leaflet, ‘Winning London Back for the Left’, little seems to have changed in this left’s agenda: upfront with its shopping list of slogans. Top of its demands is the call to withdraw troops from Iraq. I wish I could find politics so simple.

If for no other reason, the existence of the LRC enhances the importance and relevance of events like the Catalyst conference. For here was a genuine and open attempt at dialogue and at forging alliances to meet the challenges and threats posed to the public services by the ‘next’ Labour government. Here too was an emphasis on devising alternative policies and practices, on opening debates rather than closing them.

The breadth of the concerns about the public sector can be seen in the variety of workshops held: on the civil service; the health service; education from primary to higher; social housing; on empowering users; the role of the public service workforce; the role of mutuals in the public services; the new localism; campaigning for public services; and the public services and globalisation.

Opening session

Opening the event the director of Catalyst, Martin McIvor, called for an alternative vision for the public services. Instead of being based on markets, they should rest upon notions of citizenship, equality and public service ethics, where people can meet as co-producers.

In his keynote address, Colin Leys the academic (and author of Market-Driven Policies), tackled the arguments of those he described as the ‘enemies of the public services’. They have become adept, he argued, at using public language to distort the debate, utilising phrases like ‘the nanny state’ and ‘tax and spend’. For capitalists, the public sector offers a huge market with low risks. His main criticism was of claims made by the Blair leadership that what matters about the public services, particularly for the public itself, ‘is what works’. This is simply a code for privatisation, he argued.

Leys said that privatisation changes the focus from what the service is for to what it costs. Even before the service is sold, it has to be priced, broken down into standardised units, and based on the cheapest labour for the least skilled. The result of privatisation of hospital cleaning, which is based on low pay, has been a sharp rise in infections. Exposed to the market, public service television changed from programmes that include education and debate to entertainment. In the process, informed democracy is undermined. In the shift from meeting needs to making profits, we see declining standards and experience a loss of control.

At stake is the future of the whole idea of the ‘public’ interest, with active citizenship and social cohesion. These are being threatened by claims about the apparent supremacy of individual consumers in the global market place.

For these reasons, defending public services is crucial to a progressive vision and, central to this vision, is reinventing democracy. Without an effective democratic culture there is nothing to oppose the forces of the market. Only if we reassert an active, democratic culture can we defend the public sector. But this also means that it must be reformed; it cannot continue to have closed, hierarchical structures. While, to some, this may sound utopian, we need a radical change of direction, Leys argued. To be clear, confident and constructive about the future, we have to put the public services at the centre of our political concerns.

Reflecting on Leys’ statement, which is close to the ILP’s perspective on democracy, I have only one doubt. Instead of simply opposing the claim that ‘what matters is what works’, as he seems to be arguing, we could accept the phrase but take it in another direction. Sure, what matters is what works but that is tied up with how it works, how well it works and for whom it works. Here democratic accountability provides a more sound foundation for long-term success than markets. In other words, instead of simply repudiating the Blairite slogan, we might be better off engaging on the terrain that it establishes and shifting it in a more radical, democratic direction.

The third term

The panel of speakers in the first plenary came from a broad political spectrum: Douglas Alexander MP, the minister for trade, closely associated with Gordon Brown; a speaker from the National Consumer Council; the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Mark Serwotka, who is also active in LRC; Frank Dobson, MP and former health minister; and Neil Lawson, chair of the pressure group, Compass.

Douglas Alexander chose to address the future of the health service. A former chair of the Public Service Forum, he argued that the public service ethos, with its emphasis on non-material values, really matters. It defines the kind of society we have, indicating that we are members of one community based on the ideas of both reciprocity and service. The health service must continue to uphold the idea of health for all.

He identified three responsibilities for politicians. First, to speak up for this kind of society with its emphasis on public service which, he said, is a precious inheritance. Secondly, to find ways to engage people and communities in the public services. This means recognising that we live in a changing society that values greater autonomy, that people want to be heard and expect greater choice. Thirdly, we have to find a way to use the expertise and the knowledge of the people who work in the public services, based on the idea of ‘worthwhile work’. These responsibilities mean that the users and the workers should be empowered. We need structures to make this possible and to sustain these non-material values.

Mark Serwotka (a last-minute replacement for Kevin Curran of the GMB) made a lucid and robust attack on the government’s plan to cut the civil service workforce. He reminded the audience that we are talking about some of the lowest paid workers in the country, mostly women.


From Compass, Neil Lawson described his own political journey as moving from Mandelson to Marxism. He asked why the commercialisation of the public services was taking place, arguing that it was a product of the culture of Labourism and the lack of a distinctive left political economy. Frankly, the old structures for the public sector are not good enough for today. Commercialisation was therefore pushing at an open door. Old Labour treated the electorate in a paternalistic manner, as passive and as incapable of being trusted. It was born at the time of Leninism with its notion of the vanguard party leading the masses.

Social democracy lost sight of its mission to link social justice and the economy, with the principle of making society dominate the market. Today, we are told by party leaders that the globalised economy is too strong to change. Instead we have to accommodate ourselves to it and seek to be among the winners. Instead of democracy, it is interested in efficiency. Whereas, the neo-liberals never recognised an active role for the state, new Labour wants to use it, but it is destroying the special character of the public services.

Today, we need to define what a new collectivism means in a new era, involving empowerment, democracy and accountability. We need a new political economy the space for the new collectivism. We have to shift from the argument that favours ‘freedom from’ to one that upholds our ‘freedom to’. The language of freedom has to be appropriated by the left, as the means for people to control their lives. Democracy today is not only about means but ends, but in a less deferential society.

Frank Dobson argued that the health service is the citadel of socialist achievement. He said that there is a great deal of user satisfaction with it, as there is with our schools. He went on to criticise privatisation, citing the example of private residential care for the elderly. The private owners of such companies have realised that they can make greater profits from selling their properties than for caring for old people. Residential homes are closing as a result.

Practical agenda

Chairing the closing plenary session, Michael Meacher MP and vice-chair of Catalyst, spoke of the need to develop a specific, practical agenda.

Co-founder of New Wave Labour, Angela Eagle MP (author of Deepening Democracy, reviewed in Democratic Socialist, Winter 2004) argued for deepening democracy in response to both market fundamentalism and the ‘third way’. Not only does market fundamentalism fail in practice but it is has great destructive power. The Clinton version of the third way left a light and easy-to-remove political footprint. The question is whether it is possible to leave a deeper imprint on society?

This raises the question of how can we lock our values and vision into society so that it is a more just one. Central to this is remaking our democracy because people do not feel that they influence governments. We need to look at our models of democracy in terms of what it means for people to have a say in their lives – as workers and in their communities. This involves much more than considering issues like proportional representation. Why should people participate in rigged political processes? How do we counter top-down dehumanising systems?

Democracy has to be made real within the Labour Party in contrast to the present ‘command party’ structure. Some gains have been made here, such as the minority reports from the policy committees. These were even carried at last year’s conference but then ignored.

Active citizenship is what is wanted. Examples of what could be developed are the New Deal projects in the UK. We need to remake social democracy for the 21st century. The third way does not allow you to do that.

Democratic services

Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communications Workers Union (CWU), argued for the importance of the public having its say in the future of the Royal Mail which has been starved of investment. Hilary Wainwright (editor of Red Pepper, whose book Reclaim the State was reviewed in Democratic Socialist, Winter 2004) asked how we can build a movement for democratic public services. We want modern services but this does not have to mean marketised services.

Even as someone sceptical about new Labour, she thought it would show more commitment to democratic influences than to market ones. She was deeply disillusioned by the contents of Best Value policies which are not allowed to fight privatisation. Community participation in New Deal projects is allowed providing they do not hinder the private sector. The failure to persuade the electorate in the north about regional devolution shows the extent of the public’s alienation from politics.

The rhetoric of new Labour is ambiguous, she said. It uses the language of decentralisation to soften up the political process. To build alternative public services we need a strong tradition to draw upon with a deep commitment to the idea of ‘public good’. This provides the rock of commitment to better health, education and other services.

We have to open up new ways of working together, to fight systematic attempts to privatise the public sector. This means developing policies, programmes and alternative strategies from below, based on an alternative vision of the public sector, whether you are inside or outside the Labour Party.

We need a social movement for the public sector and to recognise that public workers are not a cost but a source of experience. We have ‘patches of a movemen’’, such as the struggles to retain council housing, against jobs cuts in the public sector, and the fight for the Royal Mail. Like a patchwork quilt, these actions start from different corners and connect up. The task is to turn the common sense support for the public good into a movement for the public sector.

The national secretary for local government in Unison, Heather Wakefield, argued that trade unions in the public sector are in a unique position as both workers and as users of the public services. Unions, such as hers, have the potential to influence events through their members. Seventy per cent of employees in the public sector are women.

Like the morning session, the discussions that followed lacked a clear focus, except in one respect. There was a brief exchange of views which focused on the need to be inside or outside the Labour Party. On the defensive, Hilary Wainwright (who is a leading member of Catalyst but not a member of the Labour Party and a long-term advocate for a new left party) argued that the Labour Party should not be the big issue in this kind of discussion. We can become too tied up with that debate. Instead, the concern should be what we can build together, on a democratic public sector, on non-market models.

Billy Hayes said that if we were not concerned with a third-term Labour government then everything that people have been saying at the conference ‘is so much hot air’. Angela Eagle said that important progress has been made in the policy forums and that Labour has to be returned to power to prevent the situation further deteriorating.


Not surprisingly, this conference, with its diffuse range of speakers and political perspectives, raised more questions than it resolved. In that sense, it reflects the broad centre-left politics of the group that organised it.

It did allow for differences to be debated but often they were not. For example, the government minister did not cross swords with critical trade unionists over job cuts. No clear sense of purpose emerged from the meeting – nor could it. It did show, however, that beneath the political radar there are activities taking place and ideas being discussed that could challenge a future Labour government. At best, judging from this conference, we are still at the early stages of that important process.

I agreed with Hilary Wainwright on the need to establish a movement in support of the public sector, starting with the campaigns that are already up and running. If this is to happen, however, it may have to come from other organisations and campaigns. Catalyst does not seem to be particularly equipped for this purpose. It has the authority to bring people together but it needs others with a more defined sense of purpose to take any initiatives forward.

One of the organisations present that appears to recognise this more clearly is Compass. Whatever its origins, its recent political material suggests that it may be developing in a far more radical direction. It declares: ‘progressive forces in the Labour Party and beyond must reach out to new social forces and voices of dissent’. It is committed to democratic left politics, to encouraging ideas and activities that re-politicise debate within the Labour Party, and to building a wide alliance for social change. I think we should consider its politics more carefully. It may have more potential than Catalyst to develop this critically important role.

‘Beyond the Market: Public services in the twenty-first century’ was held on 27 November 2004 at City University, London

Beyond the Market conference: participating organisations

Association for Public Service Excellence

Centre for Public Services

Compass (

Communication Workers Union (CWU)

Defend Council Housing (

Democratic Health Network


Local Government Information Unit

London Health Emergency

National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers

National Consumer Council

NHS Consultants Association

NHS Support Federation

New Wave Labour (

National Union of Teachers

Office for Public Management

Opinion Leader Research

Public and Commercial Services Union


Public Services International

Public World

Socialist Educational Association

TELCO (The East London Community Organisation)

Transport and General Workers Union


War on Want

Work Foundation

World Development Movement