After the G4S debacle, it's time to re-think the role of the private sector

We should be much clearer about where outsourcing is not in the national interest.

The failure of G4S to deliver sufficient security staff to cover Olympic venues has reignited the debate about the role of the private sector in delivering public services.  Coming soon after the controversy surrounding A4E, this latest scandal should lead us to ask big questions about how these contracts are designed and monitored, but also about the wider role of the private sector in delivering public services.

There have traditionally been three positions on this.  First, there are those who say "private good, public bad": the public sector is slow and inefficient because it is not exposed to competition, whereas private companies are inherently better at getting value for money.  Second, there are those who say "public good, private bad": the private sector will always put profits first, whereas those who work in the public sector will always put the public first.  Third, there are those who say "what matters is what works": let’s put ideology to one side, it doesn’t matter who provides the service, the contract should go to those who deliver the best outcomes at the lowest cost.

I occupy a fourth position, one that retains an important dose of pragmatism, but which is attentive to the wider consequences of the privatisation of the public realm.  Clearly there is a case for contracting a private company to deliver a service where this can add capacity quickly, where a public provider has catastrophically failed or where a private provider can bring innovation and demonstrably improve outcomes as a result. 

However, those of us on the left should want to see boundaries put around the extent of private sector provision of public services. Social democrats believe in a strong public realm, constituted by institutions that embody the shared values of public service and promoting the common good. Those institutions send out important signals about the kind of society we are and help to inculcate values of public spiritedness and reciprocity.  Few of us want to live in a society where almost every relationship involves the extraction of profit.

So this should give us a wider concern not to allow the role of the private sector to go too far.  But more specifically there are services that are generally unsuitable for private sector delivery.  First, there are services where the outcomes we want are far too complex to be easily contracted for.  We don’t just want schools to deliver a target for the number of children getting 5 A*-C GCSEs, we also want them to help young people become good citizens and to broaden their imaginations. It is hard to contract for this.

Second, there are relational services which engage the public very intensively and where the introduction of the profit motive may undermine the trust upon which good quality relationships depend.   This is why the public are less concerned about back office functions being outsourced but are more concerned about the privatisation of relational front line services such as schools and hospitals. 

Third, there are services which are there to uphold the rule of law, such as the police and the judiciary, where it is particularly important that private interests are excluded and that there is direct public accountability.

Finally, there are services that are particularly important for the inculcation of values.  This is one reason why we should oppose the introduction of profit-seeking "free schools": if we want young people to believe in the value of public service it sends entirely the wrong signal if the very schools we provide to educate them are run in part in for profit.

Now clearly there are some services that are currently delivered by the private sector that would count as complex and relational, including most care homes and many nurseries, for example.  However we shouldn’t let the current mix of provision lead us to take the view that almost anything is appropriately delivered by the private sector.  The way services are provided is due to a series of historical political decisions and compromises.  Adopting these principles does not mean unpicking all of that: we have to look at the current mix of provision and, while being attentive to the considerations I have set out, make pragmatic judgements about the future.

Where private providers are in principle appropriate, the G4S debacle should lead us to ask some hard questions about how contracts are designed and monitored.  Does a public sector that has pulled out of direct provision have the skills and expertise to design good contracts and properly monitor compliance?  Are there sufficient competitors in the market place to prevent ‘too big to fail’ providers posing significant risk?

There are many private providers delivering excellent services all around the country, often in collaboration with public and third sector organisations.  And there are many examples of public organisations failing to deliver and providing terrible customer service.  We should remain pragmatic about this – but we should be much smarter at commissioning, much tougher on compliance and much clearer about where outsourcing is not in the national interest.

Members of the armed forces are shown around the site of the London 2012 Olympics in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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Labour finds it easier to ignore the working class than to persuade them

The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.

There’s surely a deliciously bitter irony in the fact that Michael Gove’s favourite work of history is George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic The Strange Death of Liberal England. Beloved of the common reader, mistrusted by those haughty “experts” we’ve had enough of, Dangerfield tells of a British liberal consensus eroded over decades but eventually wiped out by the carnage of the First World War. For the Great War, read the cataclysm of last June’s Brexit vote, relished by Gove and the like, and you have lessons regarding the strange, ongoing death of Neoliberal England.

The year after Dangerfield’s volume appeared, 200 men marched from Jarrow to London to implore the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin to bring jobs to their beleaguered town. The smooth and emollient Baldwin wouldn’t see them, which suggests that the notion of an aloof metropolitan elite turning its back on a rusting, post-industrial north is no modern invention.

Dangerfield never offers a cogent analysis of why the normally placid British began to throw themselves under police horses, go on hunger marches, join militant unions and generally abandon their consensual deference in favour of harsher doctrines. He found it as bewildering and mysterious as the tides. The death of what we might call Neoliberal England is much more explicable, if unpalatable to some. Liberal commentators have been rudely awakened to the fact that benign progressivists from Professor Pangloss to Francis Fukuyama onwards were wrong. Assuming that, left alone, “the masses” will come around to your way of thinking is rather like those churchmen who thought babies raised in silence would automatically speak English. It is presumptuous and leads to disaster.

I found myself thinking often of lines from Yeats’s “The Second Coming”. Rough beasts slouched through the streets of Batley. Corbyn, Cameron and the other indentured members of the Westminster political class lacked all conviction. Cameron utterly miscalculated the country’s mood and hugely overestimated its opinion of his own appeal and competence. Corbyn lurked silent and wraithlike on the edges of the national debate, a study in uselessness. By contrast, as Yeats put it, the worst (Farage, Johnson, the foaming and splenetic demagogues of the Mail and the Spectator) were full of a passionate intensity. They were full of something else, too, lying through their grins about extra money for the NHS. But by then the damage had been done.

Because immigration had a crude and ugly sound, it was left to only the crude and ugly of politics to mention it. This was a mistake. As Adam Shatz put it in the London Review of Books, few mainstream politicians wanted to engage with “the fabled white working class . . . which most of us have found it easier to hate than persuade”. Yet persuasion is important, however little the present leadership of the Labour Party seems to care for this element of politics. One gets the distinct impression that Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes would prefer the purity and posturing of permanent opposition rather than the messy, compromised business of government. They offer ineffectuality and disdainful superiority dressed up as a kind of saintly decency. Maybe Jeremy feels that by not doing anything, he cannot do anything wrong. He should be disabused of this notion, and quickly.

Second, and this would seem so obvious as to not need saying, Labour needs to reconnect with its former industrial heartland. This doesn’t necessarily mean “turning to the right” or “abandoning left-wing principles”, or even embracing the dreaded “Blairism’’. But it does mean addressing (even with nose pinched between fingers) the legitimate concerns in the north and the Midlands about immigration, jobs and welfare. The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.

People disagreeing with you might be irritating – even galling – but it is not undemocratic. Democracy and liberalism are not synonymous. You can have one without the other. We struggled through most of the 1980s nominally democratic but unarguably illiberal. What Labour needs now is, perhaps, fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists, someone who might conceivably tell the party how voting works and how elections are won. If so, some of my former A-level sociology and politics students in Skelmersdale are probably still available for work.

Stuart Maconie is a writer and broadcaster

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition