The forcing through on Wednesday night of the Bill to part-privatise the probation service is one more New Labour act in the creation of a market state to replace the welfare state that developed in the period after World War II. Although more than 40 New Labour MPs voted against this latest privatisation, another 310 or so allowed the government to gain its victory in the House of Commons. Behind these fundamental changes lies the power of the globalised market economy to reduce the direct influence of the state and, at the same time, put a price on everything. Allowing private companies to provide probation services at a stroke dilutes the role and responsibility of government while creating new areas for profit making. The role of New Labour in facilitating this process overrides any other consideration that might raise its head, such as the growing crisis with youth offending, which privatisation is certain to accelerate.
Privatisation of the state and its functions has overtaken whole areas of what were formerly public services. In health, companies running private treatment centres, with patients supplied by the NHS, have unbreakable contracts. So when primary care trusts run out of money, as most have, they are forced into drastic cuts in local hospital care to balance the books because private firms are untouchable. In London, the part-privatisation of the Tube network courtesy of Gordon Brown allows firms to make huge profits while passengers endure overcrowding, delays and ever-increasing fares. What the Tories started with gas, electricity and rail, New Labour has taken much further. In secondary education, private-financed and run "academies" are increasingly dominant. And many are under the influence of religious groups who want to substitute creationist mumbo-jumbo for scientific theories of evolution. Care for older people, which was formerly the responsibility of local authorities, is now almost entirely in the hands of private companies. Support for the elderly in their homes is now severely rationed and many are forced to endure dire conditions as a result of the indifference of the local state to their plight. At the heart of the state, private corporations like IBM, KPMG, Accenture, Capgemini are having a field day as "consultants". They milk almost £3 billion a year in fees from the state for providing advice on how to rationalise and privatise services. Their fees, which are in the range of £2,000 per person per day, shot up 33% in the NHS between 2003 and 2006. In many government departments, consultants often constitute a parallel administrative arm which bypasses civil servants and provides direct access to ministers. The new, market state has at the same time assumed draconian powers over its citizens and adopted a war-like posture to the rest of the world, as the Iraqis in particular have discovered. The market state, along with the New Labour government, is truly harmful to the interests of ordinary people.
Paul Feldman, communications editor