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Year 2001 No. 125, July 18-19, 2001 ARCHIVE HOME SEARCH SUBSCRIBE

Tony Blair’s "Reform of Public Services": Spearheading Programme of the Rich for Controlling Society

Workers' Daily Internet Edition : Article Index :

Tony Blair’s "Reform of Public Services": Spearheading Programme of the Rich for Controlling Society

Defence of Social Programmes and the Pro-Social Agenda Cannot be Considered as "Vested Interests"

GMB to Cut Labour Party Contribution by up to £1 Million

W.S. Atkins Cuts More Jobs

Protests at Bush’s Visit to Britain

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Tony Blair’s "Reform of Public Services": Spearheading Programme of the Rich for Controlling Society

There is reform and reform. There is reform that facilitates the opening the door for the progress of society and there is reform which shores up the status quo.

However, it is doubtful whether Tony Blair’s "reform of public services" could even be graced with the description of "reform". Rather it is the means by which New Labour is spearheading the programme of the rich for the complete control of society, including social programmes, and thereby erasing the "values, the ethos, and the potential embodied in our public services" which, if they are to have any meaning, must refer to the conception given rise to in the 20th century that society has an obligation to look after the livelihood, the health, education and well-being of each and every member of society.

Tony Blair delivered his speech on public service reform at the Royal Free Hospital in London on Monday, July 16. It is interesting to note that Tony Blair refers to "our public services", as do the trade union leaders that have taken up the cudgels of opposing Tony Blair’s "reforms". Who does "our" refer to? To put the question in another way, who owns or controls the public services, and what is the history of such ownership or control? Of course, both Tony Blair and the union leaders wish to identify the people with the content of their utterances, but in doing so they beg the question of in what sense the great public services of health, education and others have been owned or controlled by the people. This is an important question for the people to consider in their struggle for safeguarding the future of the public services. One can detect in Tony Blair’s use of "our public services" the same spurious identification of "Labour government" with "the nation" that was evident in the pre-election campaign. What about the trade union leaders? Insofar as they are at one with the intensifying struggle against delivering the whole of social programmes into the hands of private capital and taking a stand on this basis, the workers and organised labour join with the trade union leaders in their defence of public services. Insofar as the suggestion is that the issue of the people’s control of social programmes had been sorted out in the days of the social welfare state, it could be said that there are gains to be defended but to place the human factor in control is a problem still very much demanding a solution.

Tony Blair asserts in his speech that the political landscape shifted on June 7. This is not a point to argue with, but the issue is in which way. Tony Blair uses the opportunity to elaborate the argument that the first term of the Labour government sorted out the economy and begin the process of investment and reform of public services. The second term is to make real and lasting improvements in public services. The Prime Minister needs to go into this argument at length, and try to justify the process of investment and the character of the reforms, because of the widescale opposition to the direction of New Labour’s plans. In this respect, the way in which the political landscape has shifted is one of the main issues of contention.

Tony Blair’s assertion is that the way it shifted was that investment was put before tax cuts, strong public services were put at the centre of political debate, and above all a decisive shift was made away from selfish individualism and towards a society based on community and shared values. It could be argued to the contrary that having established its power in the 1997 electoral coup, despite the electorate’s increasing misgivings, now New Labour is moving full steam ahead with putting private finance in control rather than state funding, the delivery of public services to private capital is moving to the centre of political debate, and the rights of the individual are being negated under the hoax that the community rather than society must be responsible for people’s well-being and that all must take up these communitarian values on pain of being denied their claims on society.

It is so abundantly clear that there is widespread opposition to the claim that New Labour has a "mandate" to pursue its "reforms" of public services that Tony Blair arrogantly issues what he terms "a commitment and a warning". Having worn his heart on his sleeve and shown his dedication to change for "our public services", change which is "seldom popular" (that is, people cannot be trusted to know what is good for them and leaders like Tony Blair must take up the heavy burden of doing what is in their best interests), Tony Blair says, "My commitment is that I will not flinch from the decisions and changes to deliver better public services, no matter how much opposition. If the changes are right, they will be done. My warning is equally clear. If we who believe in public services don’t change them for the better, there is an alternative political party and position that will seize on our weakness and use it to dismantle the very notion of public services as we know them. It is reform or bust."

Tony Blair’s warning that the Conservative Party will undo all the good that Labour has done rings somewhat hollow. It is evident that the honour of dismantling the very notion of public services as we known them belongs to New Labour. His commitment to not flinching, no matter how much opposition he faces, might be commendable if the opposition were coming from the vested interests of finance capital and not from the grassroots of popular opinion, the workers and professionals in the public services and from the trade unions. Tony Blair dismissively brushes away the reasons which lie behind the opposition to his programme: "safety, practicality, unfairness to the workforce, the spectre of rail privatisation will be mentioned every time a proposal for reform is made, so that people are too scared to consider on its merits the change being asked."

Leaving aside the fact that the Prime Minister is himself too dogmatic to consider the merits of the opposition to the "change being asked", what are the supposed merits of Tony Blair’s programme of reform? They are that the public services need investment, and investment must come from the private sector. Reforms are promised which, though presented under the guise of improving public services, are in a direction which is giving concern to those who are responsible for providing the public services, and which are also giving rise to concern amongst the people as a whole regarding their anti-social direction.

It does not appear to seem strange to Tony Blair that while there is so much "opposition to change" from that quarter, there are, nevertheless, some things that "the public sector can learn form the private sector". According to Tony Blair, they know, for instance, "that poor service, lack of courtesy, massive delays, destroys their image and their success. It would be surprising if the public sector could not learn something from that responsiveness to consumers." It is clear where Tony Blair’s sympathies lie.

Is it the case, as he goes on to claim, that "we should never forget the public are not ideologues – they are realists"? No matter how much Tony Blair would like to obliterate the consciousness of the people and promote anti-consciousness, it is the case that people have ideas. It is part of the quality of being human. Living in society, as part of definite social strata, they formulate ideologies. By "realists" Tony Blair actually means "pragmatists", which is a definite ideology in itself. What works must be true. Tony Blair betrays his own guiding ideology.

Puffing himself up against all the opposition to the neo-liberal agenda of unrestrained access of finance capital nationally and globally to all areas of society, particularly social programmes, Tony Blair ends by declaring: "It can be done. It will be done."

In opposition and on their own behalf, the working class and the broad masses of the people aspire to set their own agenda for society. They aspire that society should be organised so that the human factor is in control, not private finance capital and globalisation. They demand that the future of social programmes is safeguarded so that the claims of all without exception will be met at the highest possible level. To this end, they declare: "It can be done! It must be done!"

Article Index


Defence of Social Programmes and the Pro-Social Agenda Cannot be Considered as "Vested Interests"

In a crucial concluding passage in his speech on "Reform of Public Services", Tony Blair said the following: "Secondly [the first point was on being honest about what is not going to happen this Parliament], we offer our public servants a genuine partnership in achieving these reforms. There will and should be discussion and dialogue about how they are best achieved. Many unions and trade unionists are working constructively with us, as the recent MSF statement shows. Where policy is shown to be in need of adapting or changing, we will do so. But it is a partnership for change; not a veto over it. Vested interests are not the public service ethos. A commitment to better public services is and no vested interests can have a veto on reform."

This is a very important statement by Tony Blair. It demonstrates his view of the role of the government, and the role of the people and their collectives. In doing so, the statement is not simply a statement of a Blairite cabal, but a conception of the governance of society – in particular, the conduct of social programmes – which represents the dead-end, the crisis, of the prevailing theory of democracy at this time.

We may be charitable and attribute to Tony Blair a mental or verbal slip when he refers to public "servants". But it is hard to do so, because it is integral to his argument. When "servants" assert their rights, when they demand that they should have a say in determining the conditions of their existence, when they affirm that they are not "servants" but human beings, then the "masters" retort by asserting that they are going against the greater good of society, that the "servants" are merely asserting their vested interests. The place of the "masters" is to determine what should be done, and the "servants" should be trained to know their place.

It is no different when it is asserted that, for example, the role of managers is to manage, while the workers’ organisations, if they uphold the rights of the workers, are pursuing vested interests. Whether it is the managers, the masters, the government, they make the decisions but appear enlightened by offering a "partnership" between the managers and the managed, between the masters and the servants, between the government and the governed. Then, in Tony Blair’s words, there "will and should be discussion and dialogue about how they [reforms] are best achieved". In other words, there is to be "partnership" within the parameters set out by those that have the power to determine the rules of the game. So, New Labour decides on the parameters for "reform of public services". The "public servants" are then invited to enter into discussion and dialogue about how these parameters should be realised. Rejection of these parameters is dismissed as a "veto" over them.

Tony Blair may object that "public servants" means not servants of those who set the parameters for reform but "servants of the public". They should be those who humbly and selflessly provide a service to the public. This cannot be accepted either. There are many things which can be said in its refutation, but perhaps the most basic is that the conception of "servants" betrays the outmoded view of the provision of social programmes. It would be, furthermore, a gross insult to the dedication of those in the public sector who are working against the odds to provide a service in the face of a lack of resources and investment, and a direction of social programmes increasingly inimical to such dedication.

Those working in the spheres of health care, education and other social spheres have the right to participate in determining their direction, just as the people as a whole have the right to demand that society meet their needs in these spheres.

Tony Blair makes free with his use of the "public service ethos". Just what is this ethos and who is exercising a veto on reform? The issue which should be being addressed is how to involve both the workers and professionals in the public services and the people, the electorate, as a whole in the running of these public services, in determining their direction, in deciding on the nature of the reforms required in these services. Instead, Tony Blair declares "we have a mandate" (which not a few sections of society are questioning), therefore we will press ahead with our programme of "reforms" (which involves delivering social programmes over to the "private sector"), and any opposition to this programme will be deemed trying to impose a veto and the pursuit of vested interests.

The "public service ethos" that people wish to see fostered is that whereby people’s need for health care, education, transport, and so on, is met by society as of right. The veto is actually coming from the vested interests of private capital, who are demanding that it is they, and not the people, who have control of these public services.

Defence of social programmes and the pro-social agenda cannot be considered as the pursuit of "vested interests". To suggest this actually exposes the anti-social direction of the government. The masses of the people will not accept any definition of their role as "servants", and will continue to demand that the change that is brought about is for a system where they become the decision makers, and ensure that society is run in order to care for the people.

Article Index

GMB to Cut Labour Party Contribution by up to £1 Million

The GMB union is to cut up to £1 million from its contribution to the Labour Party over the next four years in protest at the increased use of the private sector in public services.

The executive of the GMB decided to cut £250,000 immediately from its expected £650,000 donation this year. But the 70-member executive went further than expected and decided to cut funding over the next four years. The decision followed the speech on Monday by the Prime Minister who said it was "reform or bust" for public services.

The union on Tuesday launched an advertising campaign depicting a nurse and a "fat cat" businessman under the slogan: "Who do you trust to run public services?"

John Edmonds, the union's general secretary, has accused the Prime Minister of "taking on" public service workers and criticised Tony Blair's speech on the subject. John Edmonds said: "If Tony Blair's comments were designed to cool the temperature, then he has made a serious blunder."

Article Index

W.S. Atkins Cuts More Jobs

Engineering and management services conglomerate W.S. Atkins is to cut 450 engineering jobs in Birmingham. The firm is based at Epsom, Surrey, and employs 13,000 people. The company is reviewing its national operations at sites which include Leeds and Manchester.

W.S. Atkins is also one of the private sector companies which are running social programmes. For example, it runs Southwark education authority in "partnership" with Southwark council. There it has already made 60 temporary contract workers redundant and more job losses are in the pipeline.

Article Index

Protests at Bush’s Visit to Britain

US President George W Bush is visiting Tony Blair at Chequers on his way to the G8 meeting in Genoa on Thursday, July 19.

Protests are being organised against the National Missile Defence plan, making Britain subservient to this "Son of Star Wars" programme, which gives the US power to use its vast nuclear arsenal without fear of retaliation. NMD means scrapping the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in practice, and is leading to a new arms race.

A protest is being organised on Wednesday, July 18, at 5.00 pm, opposite Downing Street, by London CND. There is a public meeting afterwards at 7.00 pm at the House of Commons.

CND is also organising a protest on Thursday, July 19, all day, at Chequers, Buckinghamshire, against Bush’s NMD proposals.

For more information check the Student CND Network website at www.studentcndnetwork.freeserve.co.uk

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