Private sector greed didn't cause Winterbourne View abuse

A meaningful response from the left must consider how trade unions should or could have made a difference.

So the Winterbourne View Eleven have been sentenced. Six are starting prison sentences, and the over five have been given suspended sentences. None will ever be able to work in care settings again, assuming the current CRB system remains in place.

The reaction of the Left to the horrific abuses at Winterbourne View, both when it was uncovered and when the Serious Case Review was published in August, has been much as you would expect. Some lay the blame squarely at the door of capitalist excess, suggesting that if the profiteers were driven out, everything would be just fine. Others, operating in the New Labour managerialist tradition, say the blame lies in Care Quality Commission's regulatory failures. Polly Toynbee, to her credit, managed to cover both:

Cameron's privatising zeal looks even less enticing in the wake of this week's two care home scandals [Castlebeck was the other]. The "dead hand of the state" looks rather more welcoming than the grasping hand of private equity....

Anger at abuse at Winterbourne View hospital landed harder on the regulator, Care Quality Commission, than on Castlebeck, the company that took £3,500 a week for hiring cheap thugs as carers. The CQC confessed that ignoring a whistleblower was unforgivable - but the regulator should long ago have blown the whistle on itself and warned its task was impossible on its current resources....

If standards of care in England are to rise to a premium standard, then the CQC requires a radical overhaul. At present, it is underfunded, understaffed - even if its current high level of vacancies are filled - and its inspections are neither frequent enough nor sufficiently detailed.

All fair enough, but it still misses the main point: eleven otherwise law-abiding people chose to engage in the sadistic abuse of very vulnerable people. The venture capitalists didn't make any additional money out of that abuse, and while the CQC might have stopped the abuse before it got going, that doesn't alter the fact that these eleven people wanted to abuse those in their care.

Taking care homes back under state control, while it may be a good idea for other reasons, won't ensure that such abuse never happen again. Nor will restructuring the CQC, welcome though that is too as one means of improving care.

What will stop such abuse, I contend, is a socialist approach to public service quality - an approach that starts with the people who deliver those public services, which empowers them to stand up for those they are serving, and makes them want to.

For socialists, workers claiming control of the quality of public services - in a manner integral to the defence of their terms and conditions - should lie at the heart of the labour movement's agenda. Union activists could do worse than take GDH Cole's advice from 90 years ago, when he dreamed of a society based on self-regulating guilds, focused not just on worker conditons, but on the quality and social usefulness of work produced:

It is upon the Trade Unions that the brunt of the struggle will fall. It is upon our success in laying the foundations of the Guilds even under capitalism that the chances of Guild Socialism really depend, and the problem of the transition to Guild Socialism is therefore primary a problem of trade union development. (My emphasis.)

Cole's dream of a Guild Socialist Britain may have been just a dream, but today's public sector labour movement could do worse than aspire to his vision, by:

1) Acknowledging that, while it's perfectly legitimate to defend the public sector as best we can from Tory attack, this doesn't mean what the public sector provides is perfect, and that we also have a responsibility to ensure that the kind of abuse seen at Winterbourne View ceases; arguments about the 'logic of capital', and the consequent alienation of workers, are strong and valid, but they must be countered by equally strong and valid displays of solidarity, public service ethos and 'professional pride' (the idea of the creation of a Royal College of Teaching is interesting in this regard, though I'm not sure the 'Royal' bit is needed);
 

2) Seeking to persuade the 'powers that be' in the labour movement (the party and the unions) to develop clear strategies for the development of self-regulating codes of conduct (the NUJ's code is a good example), which in time become more effective as a guarantee against inadequate public service than anything the state can impose.

3) Taking concrete steps at local levels towards the establishment or revitalisation of Trades Councils, which task themselves not just with the business of co-ordinating resistance and mitigating the worst effects of the current assault by government, but also with the creation of new class-conscious agreements between service provider and service user. In other words, labour activists should be seeking to develop, for a new age, the civic guilds envisaged by Cole:

The [Trades] council would exist to make articulate the civic point of view, the vital spiritual and physical demands of the people, and to coordinate with the various guilds which would have entrusted to them the task of supplying these demands. To date, the trade union movement has been notably absent from the debate about Winterbourne View. This is understandable, when terms and conditions of its members are its main agenda (I would also hazard a guess that very few of the eleven convicted abuses were union members.). But if public services are to be defended in their totality, there's a bigger job to be done that looking after the public servants; we need to ensure that those they serve are looked after too.        

A statement is read on behalf of victims' families. Source: Getty

Paul Cotterill is a blogger for Liberal Conspiracy and Though Cowards Flinch.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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