Marketisation and its effects

WILL BROWN reports on the ILP’s weekend of discussions on the privatisation of public services

What is the privatisation of public services? Where is it coming from and with what consequences? And what should our political response be? These are the issues which formed the central focus of the ILP’s successful weekend school in Scarborough in June.

The event kicked off with a keynote address from Dexter Whitfield of the Centre for Public Services (see Dexter’s article). He identified the five elements of ‘marketisation’ as: the development of market testing; the commodification of labour; restructuring the state; the move away from democratic public accountability; and the embedding of business interests in service delivery. He outlined how this agenda was being pursued in schools, hospitals and social care, and warned of inevitable crises as the aims of public policy clash with the profit-driven private business ‘partners’.

The discussion which followed ranged from the impact of changes in trade in services in the World Trade Organisation to changes in the investment climate that push more businesses into service provision. On the latter, it was noted that as the stock market had struggled over recent years, lower-yield but less risky returns from government public service contracts (such as the Private Finance Initiative) had become more attractive.

The second day started with a series of reviews and reports from people involved in public services – the probation service, transport and the health service.

Negative impact

In the probation service, there’s been a shift from local probation boards to increasingly centralised control followed by the prospect of wholesale marketisation as private providers are brought in to deliver services. On hospitals, we reviewed the re-organisation associated with Foundation Trusts and assessed the questions this posed for democratic control and accountability. In transport, we reviewed and compared the impact of privatisation on bus and rail services.

One theme that ran through all three sectors was the negative impact that marketisation has on workers. The almost constant process of reorganisation, target setting and apportioning blame for failure to meet targets makes work for people involved in service provision ever more oppressive.

The weekend school finished with a discussion of the political prospects for opposing marketisation, and the options available. As Dexter Whitfield argues in his article in this issue of Democratic Socialist, the trade unions’ ‘dual track’ response – official, national opposition to marketisation but local-level bargaining and involvement – has been a failure. The national-level campaign has failed to deliver, and unions have failed to support locally-based opposition.

The difficulties of building a broad-based campaign were discussed. In particular, it was recognised that often it is very specific changes to services that get people angry and mobilised. Of all the questions raised at the weekend meeting, it was probably this issue – of how such a wide-ranging and dangerous erosion of public services can be resisted – that requires most work.

The ILP hopes to continue the discussion and debate at future meetings and through contributions to Democratic Socialist.

‘Marketisation and its consequences’, the ILP’s weekend school, was held at the Esplanade Hotel, Scarborough on 10-11 June 2006. If you would like to add your voice to this discussion please write to us editor@independentlabour.org.uk

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