British Politics this week has been dominated by the collapse of Carillion and the resulting debate about outsourcing. Steve wrote about how this might lead to a wider crisis in the public sector, Lehman Brothers style, on Wednesday. In the Fizz today, I am going to focus on the political implications of Carillion's collapse.
Jeremy Corbyn was, rightly, angry about Carillion in the House of Commons on Wednesday. At times he was so angry he forgot to ask a question. Theresa May, showing the empathy and judgement which has categorised her Premiership, did not show much empathy with the workers about to be laid off, or anger with the bosses, or any contrition about the government granting Carillion multiple contracts even after the company issued profit warnings.
In a parallel universe, a scandals like Carillion would have fitted right into Theresa May's agenda of trying to make capitalism work for everyone. Unfortunately for May, not only are key advocates of that agenda like Nick Timothy now absent from government, the Conservatives are too distracted by Brexit to pursue this agenda. Instead May is making oblique speeches about defending "capitalism", which is a bit like trying to combat the obesity crisis by defending vegetables.
The Carillion affair will be an interesting case study in how effectively a Corbyn-led Labour can challenge the present culture of outsourcing. It's an area squarely on Corbyn's turf, given his implacable opposition to any notion of outsourcing. After all, New Labour was intensely relaxed about outsourcing public services to private companies, so Corbyn is able to challenge the government on this issue without being accused of hypocrisy in a way that Ed Miliband was not able to do. Yesterday's National Audit Office report, saying that private finance schemes can be 40% more expensive than if the government were to finance them, also plays into Corbyn's hands.
So Corbyn's short-term response will be interesting. Of more significance will be how the left approaches the issue of private companies providing public services more generally.
In The Future of Socialism, Tony Crosland distinguished between "means" and "ends". He argued that neither public services or private services are intrinsically better; what makes the difference is a nation's political culture. New Labour eroded this down to "whatever works", which basically meant "whatever Tony Blair thinks is common sense". It should be clear that this is a gross misreading of Crosland's argument: public services can be run by a private company, if that company works in the public interest and for the public good.. The culture of outsourcing we have currently, as described by many including James Meek, George Monbiot, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson have led to large interest payments, unaccountable services, privatised profits and socialised losses. Carillion was blacklisting workers who it knew were members of a Trade Union, and no company who did that should ever receive a government contract, and certainly not from a social democratic government.
Similarly, we cannot allow Carrillion's failure to blind a future Labour government into nationalising everything and bringing all contracts in-house. Larry Elliott (again) reminds us here about the failures of large government infrastructure projects. Ed Miliband set out some ideas on rethinking outsourcing, and Jon Trickett wrote an interesting essay four years ago along similar lines. For instance, such firms should be subject to FOI requests, train their staff properly and pay a living wage. Elliot sketches out some other solutions, such as reforming company law. Stella Creasy has called for a windfall tax on PFI contracts because of their exhorbitant rate of interest; taken altogther, all these notions could lead Labour towards a radical but credible policy on the outsourcing issue.
Corbyn is right to say that Carillion is a "watershed moment" that shows the system is not working. His job now is to find a solution that works.
Old, New, Borrowed and Blue:
Old: Given Ben Bradley's blogs on vasectomies to the unemployed and the London riots which have been unearthed by Buzzfeed, I thought I'd go back through my blogs to see what I wrote about the riots as a man in my early 20s. You can read my effort here.
New: As well as Steve's piece on Carillion which I mentioned above, he also wrote about how Jeremy Hunt should resign to fix the social care crisis. I've written something on how I feel that the threat of MPs being deselected is over-exaggerated.
Borrowed: Friend and frequent guest on Not Enough Champagne Luke John Davies wrote a piece which should be read by everyone who cares about democracy in the Labour Party.
Also, via Rebecca Lowe's Conservative Home column on what Conservatives can learn from Keir Hardie, I found Helen Thompson's article on the left and Judicial Power. Helen is often on Talking Politics, one of my favourite political podcasts, and whilst I don't always agree with everything that she says, her point that after Jacques Delor's speech to the TUC in 1988, debate within Labour about the EU ceased since "Delors effectively told the left that inside the EC it could protect what remained of its post-1945 political victories by insulating them in a ‘social European’ sphere away from the reach of a Conservative government".
Blue: Iain Martin has a fascinating piece on how the reshuffle was part of a plot orchestrated by Nick Timothy to make assassin-faced baby Gavin Williamson Tory leader. Read it and fear for our future.
Pop Culture Recommendation
On Sunday, it will be six years to the day since my Dad died. Every year I toy with writing about it, but I find that it's too hard to add anything more to that which I said at his funeral. It's still too soon, in many ways. As I said six years ago, I got my musical taste from my Dad. This John Hiatt song, by turns funny and tragic and wise, is for him.