It's hard to be fluffy and efficient

The government has to decide whether it outsources for ruthless efficiency or its fluffy "big societ

Ben Phillips writes for Left Foot Forward:

One of the big ideas behind the government’s welfare reforms is that local charities would be better at getting the unemployed into work than government.

It just so happened that there would be a middleman – often a big contractor like A4e that. . . carries £200 million of public sector contracts.

Once the contractor takes on the case, they then find a subcontractor – the small local organisation – who will actually help secure employment for the jobseeker.

Except that specialist trade magazine Third Sector have reported the majority of welfare-to-work subcontractors in one survey have had precisely no client referrals.

This seems to be a pattern in initiatives aimed at harnessing the power of the "big society". It's fundamentally a mismatch between two competing – and contradictory – aims of outsourcing. Normally, the state outsources because it thinks the private sector can do a better job; if there's an element of publicity in it, its that governments sometimes like to be seen to be reducing the burden of the public sector.

Under the Conservatives, a second aim has been grafted on to that: make the government look fluffy. The rhetoric of the big society isn't just about removing the government, but also about putting power back in the hands of the people. Unfortunately, transferring control of, in this instance, the welfare-to-work schemes from a government to a massive outsourcing firm doesn't achieve that goal particularly well.

Hence this strange split-level structure. The government can't afford to deal with charities directly (literally can't afford – the administrative overheads for dealing with the hundreds of local operations would be prohibitive), so it contracts out the role to middlemen.

Unfortunately, it appears from Third Sector's report that the middlemen aren't particularly interested in boosting the big society agenda.

David Cameron launches Big Society Capital in April. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.