Friday, April 06, 2007

Public discontent

Nick Cohen's piece in the Observer last Sunday is a highly pertinent one about unrest in the public sector.

Labour ministers … won't be smiling if they read the best of today's political books. What ought to alarm them is that they are not about the second Iraq war or the selling of peerages, but by the workers in and users of the public services, who ought to be grateful for the extraordinary increase in funding Labour has presided over. Whitehall has managed to combine the insulation from competition that characterises the worst of the public sector with the greed, audit culture and unaccountability that characterises the worst of the private.

It is worth pointing out that the spending increases have only applied in some sectors; my own field of adult education is currently in a state of crisis, outside of those seeking to obtain level 2 skills. However, I think the real issue facing public sector workers is the curious disappearance of democracy, which is in no way compensated for by a spurious notion of 'choice'.

The NHS may be a post-war creation but other services were part of an earlier municipalisation, a proud product of an assertive local government. Local democracies proved to be a potent instrument of social reform. Though imperfect, councils are at least elected and are vulnerable to the disapproval of voters. Look at the situation now. Instead of democratic bodies, we have government targets imposed by a proliferation of appointed and unaccountable quangos. For example, the once great Local Education Authorities are rumps, having lost most of their power in post-16 education to the Learning and Skills Councils.

Not only that, but the latest fashion now seems to be a cult of 'leadership', resulting in an escalating pay gap between management and other public sector workers and less collegial and democratic structures within institutions. Much of the sense of discontent stems from a sense powerlessness by people who once felt their dedication and judgement to be valued and central to the running of their services.

Democracy, in the sense of ownership, control and accountability, should be central to the institutions that are supposed to ensure our collective well-being and security. However, just when it is most needed it has gone missing, displaced by a creeping authoritarianism.

This must seem a terrible whinge from someone privileged enough to be luxuriating in a Greek spring in his second home, but affluence does not always compensate for stress, exhaustion, and frustration amongst those who work in the public sector. Labour was overwhelmingly our party, for it to lose our support would be alarming indeed.

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