Cuts and privatisation

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APR 27, 2013

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein shows how market missionaries have taken advantage of crises to privatise ever greater chunks of our lives. Since the banking crisis of 2008, we can see this first-hand as the network of neo-liberals who dominate the British political elite impose unnecessary austerity policies. Behind the cover of the debt crisis lies an agenda which is more about creating new sources of profit for corporations and instilling labour discipline (and the acceptance of lower wages) into the workforce.

Making the market central to the huge business of the NHS is perhaps the most obvious sign of this. Another is cutting expenditure on local government. Local authorities have taken the brunt of relentless cuts that act as a very convenient smokescreen for passing the blame for deteriorating public services from the Tory/Lib Dem central government to local councillors.

This is arguably the biggest issue that Cornwall’s new council will face. Effectively, to cope with cuts on this scale (imposed because the Government refuses to subject the very rich and corporations to tax levels viewed as normal before the 1980s and insists on spending vast sums of money on things like Trident, royal pageants, sporting events and suchlike) councils have to cut some of their services entirely or hand them over to private companies. We’ve already seen one proposal for ‘shared services’, or privatisation, proposed, rejected and then reappear in modified guise.

So far, Cornwall Council has pruned 2,000 people, or nearly 14%, from its labour force. In the league table of labour force cuts Cornwall Council stands 33rd worst (or best, depending on your viewpoint) out of 373 local authorities. The Lib Dem/Conservative budget amendment back in February will soon add another 300 to this total.

So what do candidates propose to do about this? Like ostriches, many fail to mention the looming financial crisis. The next time some Independent candidate assures you they’re ‘truly’ independent and will put ‘people before politics’, ask them exactly how they intend to vote on privatisation. Parish pump appeals are hopelessly out of place in elections to what’s supposed to be a strategic decision-making body. Are those who utter them capable of responding to the cuts crisis?

And what do the political parties’ say about the privatisation agenda and the cuts? Three of them implicitly accept the Government’s programme to make the poor pay a disproportionate price for the failures of casino capitalism and the greed of the super-rich. The only party to come out openly in favour of privatisation is Ukip, whose Local Elections manifesto states that we must ‘find ways of delivering services more cost effectively’ by ‘building partnerships’. As Ukip’s 2010 General Election manifesto included a pledge to sack two million public sector workers, we should expect few tears for any feather-bedded, shirking bureaucrats from that quarter.

As might be expected, both Tories and Liberal Democrats, as architects of the slow throttling of local government, can hardly oppose their own government’s policies. They both try to claim credit for freezing council tax while glossing over the need to sack a few hundred more staff. The Lib Dems merely promise to ‘cut waste and inefficiency’, although they must know that the obvious cuts in that area have surely been made by now and further ‘efficiency savings’ can’t possibly cover the gaping hole in the budget.

The Lib Dems are also mute when it comes to privatisation, leaving the door open to that option. Tory Leader Fiona Ferguson notes that decisions about working with the private sector are ‘not easy’ and hedges the party’s intentions by claiming, rather amazingly, that the Council has ‘acted decisively’. This is a definition of ‘decisively’ hitherto not found in the dictionary.

The Labour Party in Cornwall condemns the coalition’s ‘swingeing cuts’, notes that ‘vital services are at risk’ and declares its opposition to privatisation. Yet, despite this fine rhetoric, it then falls flat on its face by failing to tell us precisely how Labour councillors will cope with these ‘swingeing cuts’ or protect those ‘vital services’. Despite the 14 pages of detailed policies in their manifesto not a word is spared to spell out any practical alternatives to the cuts or any strategies of resistance. Indeed, the word ‘finances’ doesn’t appear once. Like Ed Balls in London, Labour prefers to ask for a blank cheque by refusing to make public their version of the austerity cuts that their own Government signed up to in 2010.

Every year the council spends £millions subsidising the travel plans of the better-off. But who wants to cut this?
Every year the council spends £millions subsidising the travel plans of the better-off. But who wants to cut this?

The Greens also reject Tory/Independent moves towards a ‘commissioning council’ and go further in criticising the sale of public assets, which they assert should be ‘used for community benefit, not sold off for a quick profit’. They call for a ‘vibrant, innovative public sector’ and a Council that acts ‘in our collective interest’. Fine-sounding, indeed admirable, phrases. But, like Labour, how will the Greens cope with central government cuts other than by making different choices between which services to cut? We remain in the dark.

Finally, MK is most explicit and outspoken about the financial bind the Council finds itself in, stating that over half a billion pounds has been lost in spending power in the last four years, cuts that fall hardest on the poorest. It also correctly notes that local government is ‘increasingly just an agency of central government’ and that savage cuts are an ‘ideological axe’ devastating local government. It pledges to oppose both cuts and the sell-off of council services and assets.

But it goes further by calling for a Commission to investigate the extent of government under-funding of Cornwall and a needs-based funding requirement for Cornwall. MK is also the only party explicitly proposing an alternative to council tax and its replacement by a ‘proper local taxation based on income, with the rich paying their fair share’.

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