Moving beyond left and right could save the public sector

Moving beyond left and right could save the public sector
The Guardian, by Zoe Williams


In a landscape of outsourcing, social enterprises can counter the culture that has hollowed out our services


Move beyond left and right, urges the Social Economy Alliance manifesto. Ditch your traditional notions of public versus private, society versus business; take the best ideas from both, and see where that leads you. The posters, which will be on display at Westminster station, feature a picture of Margaret Thatcher in Che Guevara’s beret; and you have to admit, they have a point. She looks great in leftwing headwear.


What I’m trying to move past is a sinking feeling. People of one stripe or another have been telling us to move beyond left and right for as long as I can remember. What it tends to mean is: “Lefties, butt out. It’s over for you.” When they say “forget public and private” they mean “give your public services to the private sector, yet still, if you please, continue to pay for them from the public purse”. When they say “forget business versus society”, they mean “stop yammering on about human beings and get back to economic verities”. It is very hard, having lived through the privatisation of almost everything, from housing to energy to transport to children’s homes, to welcome this kind of talk with an open mind, let alone open arms.


And yet, the fact is I agree with every single aim of the Social Economy Alliance, from the creation of energy cooperatives to the support of credit unions, from tax transparency to democratisation of service provision, from the living wage to the creation of solidarity funds, every last statement. I do not accept that the great achievements of the left – unionisation, social security – are obsolete. Nor can I fit the world into the old dualism: society on one side, the market on the other. It seems we hand the market a lot of ground when we just expect it to be amoral.


Take, for example, adult social care. It used to be carried out by the public sector. Councils started to outsource. Private companies put in bids for the contracts that sometimes, if you assumed they were paying minimum wage, national insurance contributions and statutory benefits, were mathematically impossible. Councils awarded the contracts regardless, because they were so cheap. Conditions within the sector went down. Minimum wage transgressions – care workers doing 16-hour days to get seven hours’ pay, because they weren’t paid travel time – are routine in this sector. You get care workers with 20 years’ experience recast as apprentices for the lower hourly rate. I interviewed someone recently whose pay hasn’t gone up for 21 years.


The companies flounder anyway, because pay and conditions are so poor that their turnover is very high, and this inhibits quality; also, they’re pulling out too much in profit. They end up in debt, and a private equity firm takes over; immediately, stocks rise, but only for two reasons. The first is the expectation that pay and conditions will be cranked down still further. The second is the understanding that there’s money to be made from an “opco-propco” deal, where you separate the property company from the operating company.


Every care home scandal you read about – from Southern Cross nearing bankruptcy in 2011 to Care UK workers going on strike last month – springs from the attempt to wring profit out of this business at the expense of the lowest paid within it. The companionship of care work, the longevity of the relationship between the care worker and the cared-for, the living standards and career progressions of the workers – it is all hollowed out or tainted.


I have argued in the past that a social enterprise could do this work, and pay workers better; treat them better; and create an entirely different dynamic of mutualism, permanence and participation. Keeping the money in the local community isn’t the half of it, though clearly that would be a huge improvement on siphoning it all off to a guy in Guernsey. I’ve seen social enterprise companies – asset-locked, copper-bottomed – doing exactly that.


Yet I hear the argument, loud and clear, that you shouldn’t have to choose between a savage business and a nicer one. That some things shouldn’t be run for profit, even if the profit is ploughed back into the business, or distributed between all the employees. That “social enterprise” is just a figleaf, which canny, profit-driven companies can manipulate (Emma Harrison, founder of A4e, famously used to call it a “social purpose company” before the Advertising Standards Authority, of all people, put a stop to it). If you believe in transparency, accountability and sheer decency – that the economy is there to serve people, people aren’t there to serve the economy – surely the answer is to in-source? Why can’t we reclaim it for the public sector, run it as it was always run?


We can: social enterprises have not set themselves up in opposition to state-run services. But at present, we are already in a landscape of mass-scale outsourcing: we have to stop accepting business as antisocial in its essence.


I should declare an interest, which is that I’ve been in and out of the social enterprise agenda for ages; this manifesto was first floated at an event last year for which I interviewed some politicians on stage. One was Michael Heseltine, who explained that the reason you needed a good state education system was so that your gardener could read properly, and didn’t mistake the word “poison” for “grass seed”.


When you agree, even for a day, to “move beyond left and right”, you hear some things that make you want to wash your brain out with soap. Yet you can also make out a different kind of entrepreneurialism, that isn’t individualistic and is collective. Between the faceless state and the profit-seeking self, there is, after all, a solid, inescapable us.