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Entries in privatisation (4)

Wednesday
Mar112009

Britain for sale

Living in Britain as something of an outsider (sort of: I'm Irish but of a lot of English descent), I perhaps get more wound up than most by the anti-Johnny-Foreigner attitude that is expressed by the British media.

Now don't get me wrong - there is plenty of antipathy towards foreigners in Ireland - but the levels of hysteria expressed by the British press about immigration and the hatred directed towards all things to do with the European Union are in another league. And you see this hatred expressed by individuals too, with people I know joining Facebook groups such as "I was born in the UK so why the fuck do I have less rights than immigrants" or "This is our country and if you don't like it fuck off". No doubt the constant barrage of foreigner-bashing headlines in the media inspires the negative attitudes and the Facebook group names (and incidentally, I find it interesting that the more right-wing the group, the more the work 'fuck' appears in it).

The impression that the press gives is one of Britain being a perfect country with a perfect identity that is somehow sullied by these bad people from abroad interfering with it. But the problem with this (aside from the obvious) is that the British press also seem to hate their own state, and the idea of their own government 'interfering' either.

As such, most British newspapers have campaigned for decades for the Government to keep out of owning or running British public services - and successfully too. Railways, electricity, gas, airports, airlines, ferries, telecommunications and even water have been taken out public ownership and placed in the hands of wealthy private owners.

The irony of all this, is that the new private owners in question often tend to be...yes, you guessed it, foreigners. The French provide a hell of a lot of UK electricity. A Spanish company runs most of the big airports. American healthcare companies are cherry-picking bits of the NHS. If Mandelson gets his way, we might have a Dutch company delivering mail. God knows who's running the railways (the train operating companies certainly don't).

Remember British Rail? Sealink? British Gas? British Telecom? You, the Brits, used to own and run them. You don't any more. They are all in the hands of various rich people, many of them from abroad. The nationality of these private owners doesn't bother me; what frustrates me is the fact that public services have been placed in the "care" of private owners at all.

When a public service is privatised what typically happens is this: a middle man gets put into the mix (interestingly, something that successful companies always try to avoid). The service often remains bankrolled or underwritten by you and me, the taxpayer, but the middle man (Johnny Foreigner or Paddy Englishman, I don't care) has to make a profit. In order to facilitate this profit, invariably one (or all) of the following things needs to happen:

  • more tax has to be spent on giving our middle man his profit
  • the Government has to reduce the level of access to the public service because it now costs more
  • the middle man has to reduce the cost of the service by cutting corners or staff pay (both detrimental to the quality of the service)
  • the taxpayer, in addition to paying for the service through tax, has to provide a top-up payment to facilitate the profit (that's why UK rail fares are extortionate!)
The counter-argument to the above is that the private sector adds 'rigour' and competition. It's apparently meant to be more efficient than the public sector. Well, private sector 'rigour' and 'efficiency' don't seem all that appealing in the light of the credit crunch - if the private sector can't even get private finance right, how on earth is it meant to cope with public services?

As for competition, it doesn't (and can't) exist for many of the public services that have been privatised. Privatisation hasn't provided me with a range of choices when it comes to things like water, buses or trains. I'm stuck with what's provided - the middle man for my area. (I'm currently using Russian gas and French electricity and I have to get a bus owned by a company that operates transport in Germany and Denmark. Again, not that I mind the nationalities - it's the nature of the ownership that worries me).

Whatever the debate about efficiency, there is still the issue of accountability to think about. "Public service" means just that: serving the public, not making some guy rich. Should a health service be run to make somebody a profit, or should it serve the interests of everybody? Should an environmentally-friendly train journey cost two to three times as much as travelling by car, just so First Great Western can stay in business? Should something as fundamental to life as water be controlled by a company, or should it belong to all of us?

As for rich foreigners, it's hardly surprising that the press has no problem with them owning British public services. After all, they've got a little thing for owning British newspapers too. Isn't that right, Mr Murdoch? Mr Black? Mr Lebedev?

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Tuesday
Oct072008

There goes the economy...

Right, so it looks like the global economy's about to go down the loo. The UK government is nationalising a load of banks. The US government has effectively brought Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae back into public ownership (very oddly-named institutions by the way - remind me of a Rod Stewart song). All over the world, governments are doing the same, stepping in to protect citizens' savings and trying to keep national economies afloat.

Nationalisation has been, for the past 25-30 years or so, a filthy word. Common - but not good - sense has prevailed that public equals bad and inefficient; and that private equals good. This is daft, as anyone who has ever got an overpriced, overcrowded train in England can testify, but it has nonetheless led to all manner of privatisations, or marketisations of things that were formerly publicly-owned.

All over the world, governments have handed over things as vital to everyday life as hospitals, transport systems, water and education to the 'care' of big business. This is true particularly of the UK, where there are hardly any publicly-owned public services left. The ones that are still state-owned, like the Tube or the NHS, have been forced to involve private sector organisations heavily in their operations, leading to things like the billion-pound Metronet fiasco and filthy hospitals. We've also seen dodgy educational establishments being set up that allow rich individuals to invest a certain amount and, wait for it, set the curriculum.

But now it seems that the rules are being rewritten: it seems as though there's a bank nationalisation every day of the week now. Why? Because, with banking, the private sector has failed massively - to the point where governments have no option but to do what governments are elected to do: a bit of governing. The private sector might have been able to get away with running public services badly and expensively for years, but it's harder for the government to sit idly by and be all laissez-faire when people's houses and savings are on the line.

But what's really important about the banks' failure is this: the private sector is meant to be good with private finance. If it can't even get that right, why on earth should it have anything to do with things as fundamental as drinking water, education and healthcare?

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Tuesday
Sep232008

Ah come on now Gordon...

Alright Gordon, fairly decent speech today but no cigar.

Here are some ways you can get my vote back (not that it was going to the Tories, I'm probably going to abstain at the next election, in protest at all the parties offering more or less the right-wing fare).

1. Introduce a fair voting system -- PR. That'll stop the Tories winning 60% of the seats when only 40% of the electorate votes for them. Yes, that's right fellas, somewhat unbelievably Britain is, and traditionally has been, a left-leaning country...it's just that the voting system is rigged to reward right-wingers with an incredibly disproportionate number of seats.

2. Bring the railways back into public ownership. I'm tired of paying daft money to travel for 45 minutes on a train. Paid £43 for a return trip from London to Oxford recently - nearly 50p a minute. Seriously. And while you're at it, please do something about the use of the word 'customer' on the railways. I am a P-A-S-S-E-N-G-E-R.

3. Stop privatising the Health Service. In Ireland, that little country to the west of Wales where I originate from, they rely on private operators to a silly degree for healthcare and the natives have to pay 60 Euros every time they see a GP. That is more painful than whatever they went to the doctor with in the first instance.

4. Stop foreigners buying British newspapers and slagging off, er, foreigners on the front page.

5. Ban Carol Vorderman (although admittedly Countdown kinda did that recently).

6. Buy my album.

7. Make Geoff Hoon do a humorous dance.

8. Make love not war.

9. Stop grumpy musicians from making lists (D'oh).

10. See point 6.

Etc., etc...just give us some decent Labour policies. While you still can, because you'll be out on your ear one way or the other soon. Feel faintly sorry for you, but I haven't forgiven you for Metronet and for letting First Great Western run anything. Particularly a train to Oxford.

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Wednesday
Jul302008

David and David

David Miliband's article in today's Guardian seems to have provoked a lot of speculation about whether or not he'll take a shot at the Labour leadership.

Whilst battling a horrendous hangover this morning, I read said article. It wasn't much of a hangover cure (and certainly not as effective as the bacon sandwich which was also being consumed at the time).

Despite the media fuss, basically what Miliband is offering is exactly what Brown is currently providing - Blairite "reform" of public services (read creeping privatisation). The 'platform for change' that his article refers to is more of the same, albeit maybe at a faster pace.

What David Miliband might be able to provide which Gordon seemingly cannot is a bit more personality. He's definitely more likeable and seems more at ease with the media. I could see him having a reasonable chance of improving Labour's situation should he become leader (then again, it couldn't get much worse).

If Miliband does lead Labour into the next election, it will amount to a personality contest between two rather well-to-do Davids. This is because Miliband's New Labour politics are so close to Tory positions that there will be little for voters to choose from except the likeability of the respective Davids. Once again, voters will be denied a proper choice, and will have to elect a right-wing government or a er, right-wing government.

In other words, it would be like voting for David...or David.

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