G4S is just the latest in a long line of outsourcing disasters

When will we learn?

The left has long understood many of the many problems of outsourcing: the fact that it typically replaces at least semi-decently paid, full-time staff, with career paths and a commitment to the service ethic, with a casualised, often minimum wage, rapidly-changing group of workers who are struggling to survive – often working two or three jobs. (Even in “professional” areas such as GP surgeries and IT, relatively low pay and casualisation is the norm.) The cash not going to the work force is redirected into shareholders' pockets, all too often through off-shore, tax haven companies that fail to contribute tax to the society in which they're based, from which they’re extracting profits.

But most of all, we’ve understood that it doesn’t work. We’ve seen it fail again and again. The outsourcing of hospital cleaners contributed to a rise in hospital-acquired infections and super-bugs. Multiple government IT projects have gone seriously and expensively off the rails. Then there’s the still unfolding scandal of the ruinously expensive PFI scheme for hospitals (and other public institutions such as schools) which has just claimed its first victim, with the South London Healthcare NHS Trust going into administration. And railways and the Tube, and call centres…. the list goes on and on.

And now we’re finding, with G4S unable to guarantee that it will provide the contracted staff for the Olympics, that we’re calling on the army to help. So visitors to London will see a militarised Olympics, with expensively trained soldiers doing work that they have no training, and possibly no inclination, for. It’s difficult to know which is worse soldiers doing jobs they aren’t suited for or for that work to be done by some of the many £2.60/hour security “apprentices” that we learnt about during the Jubilee security outsourcing scandal. These arrangements for Olympics security may not be a recipe for public safety or confidence.

The writing is on the wall, but a lot more still has to be done to highlight the basic flaw of outsourcing, the reason why it does not, cannot work: the supplier of outsourced services and the purchaser have different objectives. It's as though your service is balanced on a rubber band held by two people running in different directions. Sooner or later it is going to snap, or one side be dragged back.

One small example from my working life, details anonymised for contractual reasons. At one time a widget producer had staff security people, who understood their job to be assisting in the smooth production of widgets. They knew the company, they knew the staff, they understood at least a bit about making widgets, and they used their common sense, their knowledge and some flexibility in applying the security rules to assist in the making of widgets. Then they were outsourced. New staff came in, employed by the security firm, for the purposes of security. They applied the rules as laid down by their company rigidly and inflexibly (indeed they were at risk of losing their job if they didn’t).

They didn’t know or care about the production of widgets, or that they were actively hampering their production. One told me – while I was trying to get a freelance widget worker through the system: “We’re subject to penetration tests you know.” (And no this wasn’t MI5 or Scotland Yard.) Cue rampant frustration, many wasted hours of staff time and a considerably less pleasant working environment. And fewer widgets produced.

As with so many aspects of our neo-liberal, hypercapitalist economy, outsourcing doesn’t work even in its own terms. It is a disaster, on financial, service and social grounds. We've got a government now that's ideologically wedded to it, as part of the "market knows best" religion, despite the obvious collapse of the case for that creed in the past few years, and the main opposition party that finds itself too close to its past failures to publicly recant – even if it wanted to, which given the return of Tony Blair you’d have to conclude it doesn’t. On top of that, we've got a whole generation of people in senior public service and private sector management with crisp, expensive and intellectually mediocre-to-worthless MBAs in this outsourcing "religion", who lack the knowledge of any other approach or the ability to adapt to the obvious facts under their nose.

There's a long road ahead to reverse direction from this outsourcing dead end. But we can start by saying, loudly, clearly and often, that outsourcing is a disaster. It does not, cannot, work as well as forms of organisation based on shared goals, whether they be co-operatives or public ownership at local or national level, or at least a company in which permanent, decently paid staff are working together towards the same aim.

Natalie Bennett is chair of Green Party Women and the former editor of the Guardian Weekly


Soldiers have been drafted in to help with security at the 2012 Olympics after G4S failed to recruit enough staff. Photograph: Getty

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.