Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cameron's great con trick

Conservative leader David Cameron launched his party’s election manifesto with a head-turning invitation to working people in their communities to take on the power to change the system. But don’t be deceived. This is just part of the Tories’ approach to paying off the towering debt that’s threatening to sink the British state.

If elected, he says his government will devolve power, allowing co-operatives and social enterprises to run schools and health services. “Giving public sector workers ownership of the services they deliver is a powerful way to drive efficiency, so we will support co-operatives and mutualisation as a way of transferring public assets and revenue streams to [the] public sector," says the manifesto.

Using language long familiar to the labour and trade union movement now deeply disenchanted with 13 years of New Labour, and appealing to the recent upsurge of people determined to defend and develop not-for-profit services in and for their communities, Cameron has clearly picked up on some popular sentiments.

The Tory leader has noticed that co-operatives, mutuals and not-for-profit social enterprises can mobilise the support of large numbers of volunteers eager to work for the benefit of their community when the lifeline services provided by post offices, schools, health and care centres, as well as local shops are threatened with closure. He could hardly fail to notice the charity shops that feature prominently in every high street in the land now that the credit-funded property and retail boom has collapsed.

So the Tories have put two and two together. On the one hand are the hedge fund managers, bankers and similar types with which he has filled the ranks of his party depleted by departing expenses fraudsters. They and their backers are determined to ensure that the interest payable on government bonds finds its way out of the economy and into their bonus payments. And they are demanding savage cuts in public sector spending so as to reduce the government debt to manageable levels and avoid state bankruptcy.

On the other hand are the millions of people who feel and sense that the systems and services essential for social cohesion are being knocked away prop by prop.

So, thinks Cameron, why not hand the essential services over to be run by volunteers? The choice to be offered to public sector workers will be redundancy and an end to the public sector as we know it, or they can form themselves into co-operatives and compete for contracts offering the cheapest tender using willing volunteers. Brilliant!

Cameron’s proposals for the public sector don’t extend into the world of private profit, of course. And New Labour’s manifesto talks of returning Northern Rock to the private sector as soon as possible.

But if profit-sharing employee-owned businesses and not-for-profit community enterprises can run things on a not-for-profit basis, and there are plenty of successful examples to prove that they can – the John Lewis Partnership to name just one – why not extend the principle to the whole of society?

Why not run the banks on the same principle as the NHS, as a not-for-profit service to society? It isn’t a new idea – building societies were created for exactly that and it is good of Cameron to raise the idea again. Why after all, do for-profit finance houses need to exist at all, tempting us into deeper and deeper debt?

What’s needed now is to go the whole hog. Let’s set up the democratic structures to take all of the assets of the corporations and banks into social ownership, cancel the debt and run the whole of the economy on not-for-profit lines. It’ll do us and the planet a world of good. In the meantime, hang on to your vote!

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

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