Over the last few weeks both Labour and the Tories have announced plans to restructure education, health and social services after next year’s election.
David Cameron has said the Tories will break up large national institutions to bring them under “local control”.
He claims that local means closer to communities. But in Cameron’s world this doesn’t mean control by local government – or indeed any kind of local accountability.
Instead local quangos will control the public purse. And Cameron is effectively proposing to deepen the present government’s drive to privatise by stealth.
Some in the Tory shadow cabinet are suggesting education vouchers for parents to use in their “choice” of schools – something that even Margaret Thatcher backed off from.
The voucher plan is a deepening of New Labour’s “personalisation” agenda which provides some social service users with direct payments to spend within the social care market. In the process, any kind of regulation becomes difficult to enforce and monitor, wages are forced down and working conditions undermined.
Labour is already supposedly devolving money and power to local communities.
So in some parts of the country small amounts of cash are distributed to desperate communities by committees made up of local councillors, youth and community workers, locally nominated “champions” and other voluntary sector representatives – hardly a representative bunch.
The dangers are immense. Local cronyism can flourish, the sums available can’t provide sustainable services, it plays area off against area and produces all sorts of tensions between communities.
And it reduces the money that local government has at its disposal to meet need across its area.
Gordon Brown’s future plans are not fundamentally different to the Tories – but they do try to make an ideological claim to revive a radical tradition of working class self-help. So Brown and some of his advisers have suggested that if Labour is re-elected, they will look back at pre-1945 forms of working class welfare.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, there were indeed a number of attempts by working class communities to organise to meet their needs.
So collective self-help provided miners and their families with access to doctors, to libraries and to education.
In Pimlico, a health centre provided its cooperative members with a range of medical and health services.
This included a swimming pool and other services to provide for working class people’s physical well-being.
The interesting thing about these examples is that socialists provided them. And part of their philosophy was suspicion of the state as an instrument of class rule.
But this radical tradition is a thousand miles away from Brown’s proposals.
His intentions are to cut the costs of service delivery and provision, to deepen privatisation, to reduce any control over service providers and to undermine the wages and conditions of welfare workers.
Their plans will be catastrophic for service users and workers.
There is an older working class tradition that is the perfect response to both Brown and Cameron. Its summed up in two slogans: “An injury to one is an injury to all” and “United we stand, divided we fall.”
Service users and workers can form a formidable barrier to the Brown/Cameron attacks and defend publicly owned and controlled welfare for all, free at the point of use.
Michael Lavalette is a councillor in Preston