Public services need a new pragmatic model which places public accountability and the citizen ahead of ideology

The politics of the past was a battle between those favouring the State and those committed to Private Enterprise. The latter won – most notably as a result of the Thatcher/Major’s privatisation programmes. These changes were made inviolable once Blair/Brown decided not to unravel any of them. In the battle of ideologies free enterprise triumphed.

In selling off the family silver Governments rewarded their class friends. In particular where privately owned and run monopolies were created. Some public services such as water and the railways became private fiefdoms where competition (nominally the driver of free enterprise) was absent. Fat cat profits and salaries for the head honchoes followed.

Analyse the provision of public services and you will find that they are all, in reality, public/private partnerships. Subsidies abound and the State often owns much of the infrastructure. When attempts were made to privatise the rail network with Railtrack it was an unmitigated, incompetently managed disaster. The NHS remains overwhelmingly State owned and run, but the private sector plays an important part throughout – and increasingly so.

In effect we are in a post ideology age. Jeremy Corbyn’s hankering after increased State ownership was antediluvian and the “hands off the NHS” brigades are equally shortsighted. What is needed is a new pragmatic model which places public accountability and the needs of the citizen foremost.

A crucial element now missing almost entirely from the private sector and under threat in the public sector is collective bargaining and union representation. Part of public accountability has to be respect for the employed. A problem is that for decades pre Thatcher Trades Union power became fiercely political with some Unions (notably the National Union of Mineworkers) exercising power way beyond their remit of defending the interests of their members. Though Thatcher’s coining the phrase “The Enemy Within” was offensive and hugely partisan there was an element of truth in it.

Union power is now almost entirely confined to the public sector , and selectively so. The NHS unquestionably needs efficiency improvements if it is to deliver value but the Unions (including the hugely powerful British Medical Association) rarely participate in reform. Meanwhile, as we have seen, some privatised service industries like Water and the Railways put profit and executive pay ahead of customer service.

Working together surely better than binary conflict ?

Our society is so divided that the very idea of cooperation in, say, improving the NHS seems alien. Binary structures are recipes for conflict . Ideology never helps. The moves towards the creation of an integrated railway service were forced on government by private sector failure. To think that the quality of the railway service you receive depends serendipitously on where you live is preposterous, but it’s true. A national network, national standards, a national fare structure (etc. etc.) is common across Europe. In comparison in Britain there is utter confusion.

As we gradually become aware of environmental threats the need for expanded and efficient public transportation becomes all the more important. HS2 will be a start taking customers out of their polluting cars and putting them in far more efficient and greener fast moving railway carriages. Again look at Europe to see the model. Note: We shouldn’t really care who actually owns the services so long as they are publicly accountable and deliver value. A properly constructed National Railway Service (NRS) is as necessary as a similar NHS. And it equally needs to be a public/private partnership.

I realise my “solution” will probably antagonise both sides in the public/private debate though as it seeks to put customers (the general public) ahead of ideology it shouldn’t. Our society shouts a lot, we need more mature debate and search for agreement and cooperation. Too much to expect? Probably.


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