By Simon Basketter
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Neoliberalism, the ideology that put profit before safety, could be on its way out

This article is over 4 years, 7 months old
Issue 2559
Attacks on health and safety regulations lie behind the disaster at Grenfell Tower
Attacks on health and safety regulations lie behind the disaster at Grenfell Tower (Pic: Guy Smallman)

It may be that health and safety is what kills off the neoliberal consensus.

The media loved to bang on how “elf ’n’ safety” has gone mad and red tape is a needless burden on business.

After Grenfell that noise is diminished. There is a rearguard action to blame the Grenfell blaze on EU regulations. But it is thin gruel for the right.

Not that the Tories are totally against state intervention in housing.

Ask Jacob Rees Mogg’s in-laws, whose ancestral pile, the 365-room Wentworth Woodhouse, was given a £7.6 million restoration grant last year.

That’s the same Rees-Mogg who repeatedly voted for the bedroom tax.

Then there’s the £369 million spent refurbishing Buckingham Palace when we can’t find the £200,000 to put sprinklers in flats a stone’s throw away.


But “We can’t live beyond our means,” was the homely explanation for why there are billions for weapons but not enough care workers.

For decades it has been treat as simply daft to argue against the idea that safety or public services were more important than profit.

A simple bureaucratic example—in 2004 chancellor Gordon Brown commissioned Sir Phillip Hampton to make regulation cost effective.

His report “reducing administrative burdens” was clear and a success.

So in the decade to 2015 food hygiene and food standards inspections fell by 15 percent and 35 percent.

There were over a third fewer prosecutions. National prosecutions fell by 35 percent and local prosecutions by 60 percent.

The cuts to safety regulations weren’t an accident. They were the consequence of a consensus in politics that what was good for business was good for everyone.

Of course there never actually was a consensus.

People wanted less privatisation, less inequality more fairness and so on.

But there’s been a gradual erosion of certainty even from among those at the top and their paid ideologues.

The genie is out of the bottle and our side needs to push home the advantage

The banking crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed meant those who believed that this was the best of all possible systems to a severe blow.

That a rising tide does nothing more than lift yachts was added to by the stark reality of austerity.

While overall resistance has been weak, we have seen a growing resentment and a view that something else should be done.

That mood was symbolised by and has crystallised around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Around half the population consistently backpublic ownership of the rail network (52%), utilities (49%) and Royal Mail (50%). Labour has caught up to its own support

The Labour Party has taken a while to spot its own success. So it took until half way through the election campaign when Corbyn held rallies that tapped into this mood.


May’s faltering response to the Grenfell Tower disaster compounds the problems laid bare by her general election campaign

Now the Conservative Party say the large vote for Labour means voters have had enough of “austerity”.

Top Tories are flitting about arguing that any attempt to remove Theresa May “will usher in ‘a Marxist government”. It’s all they’ve got left.

However it is not all onwards and upwards. Nicholas Macpherson, the permanent secretary to the Treasury under three chancellors—Brown, Darling and Osborne—wrote appropriately enough in the Financial Times last week.

He explained that Osborne’s “trick” as chancellor was “to talk tough while putting into practice a programme which was admirably pragmatic and flexible.

“Whereas Ireland managed to reduce its gross public debt from 86% to 75% of national income between 2010 and 2016, Britain’s public debt carried on rising from 76% to 89%. In short, Britain never experienced austerity”.

That is what mandarins really think. But the genie is out of the bottle and our side needs to push home the advantage.

The neoliberal consensus is fatally wounded. Action from below can kill it off permanently and turn putting people before profit from a slogan to a reality.

“This coalition has a clear new year’s resolution: to kill off the health and safety culture for good. We need to realise, collectively, that we cannot eliminate risk and that some accidents are inevitable. We need to take responsibility for our actions and rely on common sense rather than procedure.

“Above all, we need to give British businesses the freedom and discretion they need.”

Tory prime minister David Cameron, January 2012

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