Monday, 24 January 2011

Democracy will be the loser at the end of the Cameron project

Who do you blame if your train is late?

The train operating company? Network Rail perhaps? The maintenance firm to whom work is sub-contracted? One or all of these, no doubt. But not your local MP, or the transport minister. Probably not, as they have little or no control over the system any more. The train network in this country is many things, but accountable, it isn't.

Now let's take the government's NHS reforms. Or their Free Schools policy. Or their plans to outsource just about every local authority function and very many civil service functions. The same logic would apply: if one private company (responsible above all else to its shareholders) owns one part of a service, some social enterprise another, yet another US-based corporation another part, then who is ultimately responsible for providing the service? And who can you call to task, as a citizen in a democratic state, if things go wrong?

If you receive bad service from a clothes shop you can vote with your feet and pop next door to a rival. But so many services - railways included - cannot offer that choice. So 'choice' in this sense becomes an illusory concept. Without the capacity to vote the owners of the organisation out - as we can do with our elected politicians - you are left impotent. It's a democratic deficit.

It is precisely this dilemma that has led Gus O'Donnell, the head of the civil service, to order an inquiry into the government's planned Big Society reforms (or, if you prefer to use its full title, the wholesale privatisation and fragmentation of publicly-owned services). He is - rightly - concerned that the end of the road for Cameron's project may leave millions of citizens disenfranchised, with little or no power over the services that they rely on.

It is one of the big charades of the libertarian Right - its proponents profess to believe in 'choice', 'accountability' and 'people power', but are pursuing an ideological project that will lead to power becoming ever more distant - entrenched in the corridors of a Texas-based multinational or on some other distant shore. It is the polar opposite of democracy.

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