Here’s the speech that Cat Hobbs, founder of We Own It, gave at their Unions21 hosted event at Labour Party Conference
“Thank you so much for coming today, it’s great to see you all. I thought I’d start our discussion today by reading you the story of someone who got in touch to support us recently. He wanted to be kept anonymous so let’s call him Dave.
This is what Dave said to us:
“This is probably the single most relevant issue in today’s politics. As far as I am aware the Green party are the only ones who are promoting renationalisation. Which is scary as if the facts were publicised it would surely be a vote winner for any party, demonstrating nicely that policy in all the major parties is driven by party donors and lobbyists not by informed public opinion and definitely not common sense.
If it’s any use to you my personal example of privatisation not working is this:
When I arrive in my lab each morning it generally hasn’t been cleaned properly, some times not at all. I call the Sodexo help desk and report it and then quickly clean anything that is really nasty myself before the first patient arrives. As far as I know Sodexo suffer no penalty for not fulfilling this part of their lucrative hospital cleaning contract and therefore has no interest in improving the service they provide. They continue to make a profit. Meanwhile the taxpayer pays for me, on pay band 7, to mop floors. A very expensive way to do it, especially if you have already paid a cleaner to. Hospital management don’t take any interest as they have already shown a saving on their cleaning services. What a load of BS.”
It’s not just Dave. People all over the country are frustrated about their services being sold off or handed over to companies who don’t care, and don’t deliver.
They are frustrated about high water bills, energy bills and rail fares.
They are frustrated with G4S and Serco being allowed to bid to run probation services while they’re being investigated for defrauding the taxpayer.
They are frustrated that even though many councils are bringing public services back in-house because it works better, others, like Barnet, are locking themselves into 10 year contracts with private companies like Capita. They are doing this against the will of local people, supported by the government’s ‘open public services’ agenda (a bit of lingo that could come straight out of 1984).
Labour has got to do better than this. Not a bit better, by default, because it’s quite easy to be better than this government without even trying. It needs to be a lot better.
We are giving Labour a ready-made solution: start by committing to a Public Service Users Bill, to promote high quality services and give all of us a voice when it comes to how they are run.
Labour is already against Royal Mail privatisation. It should be in favour of giving us a say over whether it happens by requiring public consultation before any public services are privatised or outsourced. Nearly 80% of people would support this.
Many Labour MPs are fighting for East Coast to stay public. It would be logical to require local and national government to look at public ownership best practice whenever they contract out, and put forward an in-house bid when they do. 80% of the public support this idea.
Shadow Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has committed to applying Freedom of Information legislation to private companies running public services. That’s great but they should also be required to share performance and financial data, and we should have a right to recall them when they do a bad job. Again, 80% of people would support a right to recall, including, surprisingly, 90% of Conservative voters.
Labour wants to increase the role of cooperatives and real mutuals in our economy. It should be prioritising organisations with a social purpose above private companies in the bidding process for our public services.
The Bill we are calling for is feasible and practical. Today we’re asking Labour to commit to it. Do it for Dave. Not Dave Cameron, the other Dave, at the hospital. Actually, do it for Dave Cameron too – to prove that Labour is different, and better.”
Cat Hobbs, Founder, We Own It
In 2013 the coalition government pushed ahead with plans to privatise ever more of our public services, taking aim at key British institutions like the Royal Mail, the NHS and the search-and-rescue service as well as announcing plans to re-privatise RBS.
Increasingly, this doesn’t look like an evidence-based approach. While private companies like G4S keep letting us down, the public ownership option – for example in the case of East Coast rail – offers a real, practical, successful alternative that has strong public support.
We Own It is calling for a Public Service Users Bill to protect and promote the high quality, accountable services that we all need. The people who use public services must have a look-in when it comes to how our public services are run.
We welcome Labour’s commitment to applying Freedom of Information legislation to private companies running public services. The party needs to go further, by requiring that private companies also share performance and financial data, and giving the public a right to recall them when they do a bad job.
The public should be consulted before any service is privatised or outsourced. Local and national government should be required to look at public ownership as the default option before contracting out, and as a value for money benchmark when they do contract out. Organisations with a social purpose – the public sector but also genuine mutuals, cooperatives, social enterprises and charities – should be prioritised above private companies in the tendering process.
We Own It is a new organisation for everyone who wants public services to be run for people not profit. We are a voice for public service users who want public services that are owned by us and accountable to us. The drive to privatise everything has gone too far. Join us to discuss how Labour can help redress the balance.
For information about the We Own It joint fringe event at Labour Party Conference with Unions21 click here.
Unions21 is not party political and does not support any political faction or policy, but promotes trade unions and their aims by engaging across the political spectrum on relevant issues.
Joe Dromey is Head of Policy and Research at the IPA
At Labour conference last year, Ed Miliband borrowed from the Tory lexicon and set out his vision for One Nation. A key part of this would be building an economy in which success would be ‘made by the many, not just a few at the top’. But six months on from his Ed’s conference speech, there remains a significant gap in the vision for a One Nation economy. What about Trade Unions?
The Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna recently acknowledged their role as ‘wealth creators for this country’. But what role could unions play in a One Nation economy? And what would a One Nation model of trade unionism look like? With 2015 fast approaching, it’s time for Labour to address these questions.
Unions will obviously continue with their essential work both of representing employees who are mistreated, and pushing for fair pay and good terms and conditions. But in addition to this, a One Nation model of trade unionism might include a greater focus on skills development, on community campaigning and on partnership working.
First, in a One Nation economy, unions could play a vital role in skills development and utilisation. Where they are present in the workforce, unions already do sterling work here, supporting over 170,000 learners each year (1). As a result, the majority of unionised workplaces are ‘high trainers’, compared to just one in three non-unionised workforces.(2)
An incoming Labour government should put unions at the centre of their skills strategy. Working alongside employers, they can help both to identify and remedy skills gaps, and to improve skills utilisation. Giving unions a prominent role here could also bolster their presence in the private sector where, after a sustained period of decline, just one employee in seven is a union member.
Second, trade unions must retain a focus on the community where their members live and work. After all, unions grew out of the community in the early 19th century and they functioned as major providers of welfare services until the state began to take over. Membership helped define working people’s identities and build a sense of community and solidarity at work. Yet the movement has lost some of its community focus in recent years, with some unions concentrating only on industrial issues.
A One Nation model of trade unionism must continue to focus on the wider community. TSSA in their Together for Transport campaign have been using community organising approaches to great effect. They are building coalitions of support including railway workers, passengers, and the wider community to fight for common causes such as protecting ticket offices and lowering fares. The strength of the Living Wage campaign owes much to the union movement. Labour’s strategy for a living wage (and indeed for enforcing the minimum wage) must have the unions front and centre, leading the drive for decent pay in local communities.
Finally, One Nation trade unionism must have workplace partnership at its core. Employers and employees have an obvious shared interest in the sustainability, stability and success of their organisation. There will be differences of emphasis and sometimes of interests, but the key is how these are resolved for the benefit of the workforce and the organisation alike.
Despite talk of a general strike (that would be both unworkable and counterproductive), unions on the ground are recognising the need to work together with employers and compromise in order to protect jobs. Far from a new winter of discontent, strikes remain a fraction of the level seen in previous recessions.
Members want to see their representatives play a positive role; yes standing up for their rights, but also contributing towards the organisation’s success.
Working in partnership with employers, unions could help drive up employee engagement. After all, workplaces with an engagement culture are safer; employees are less stressed and have higher levels of wellbeing; they are better managed; they are listened to and know their voice counts.
There are numerous recent examples of where strong trade unions – through pursuing partnership with employers – have really made a difference to members. Take the mothballed former Corus steel plant at Redcar where Community found new buyers, bringing back thousands of good quality jobs to the local area. Or the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port where Unite were instrumental in winning the contract for the new Astra, securing the future for years to come.
Obviously it takes two to tango; there has to be will on the part of employers to work together. And there are things the government could do to encourage partnership; by legislating to ensure an employee voice on boards or by re-examining the information and consultation regulations. Labour might also consider a new fund along the lines of the Union Modernisation Fund – scrapped by the Coalition – to encourage partnership working and a focus on the community.
However, it is clear that the tone and approach of unions matters too. They need to preach and practice partnership.
Obviously it’s not for the Labour Party to dictate how democratically governed unions should behave. But if Labour is serious about building a One Nation economy, it needs to set out its vision for, and provoke discussion on, the role of trade unions within it. A trade unionism focused on skills and training, on campaigning in the community, and on working in partnership with employers could help deliver the One Nation vision, and really make a difference for working people.
Labour Party Conference is a good time to reflect on the explicitly political nature of some of the CWU’s campaigning work.
I believe trade unions are inevitably political. The CWU is often explicitly so. Any group of 205,000 workers and their families acting in a combined, collective way must have an impact on social and economic policy. Especially when more than half of them work in a public sector body the government wants to sell off.
So even though the legislation to privatise has been passed, we continue to work hard on the regulatory structures, to protect the “Universal Service Obligation” which we believe is very much under threat. We also continue to press for the utilisation and development of the Post Office as a vehicle for delivery of key services – hence our campaign with others for a Post Bank. Every failure to utilise this already existing, publicly funded network (such as switching the contract for benefit payments (the so-called “Green Giros” ) to a commercial company) demonstrates to us the ideological and hostile character of the government’s intentions.
Campaign for New Commission on Workers Rights from GMB, Motion from Unison on Low-Pay, Proposed Rule-Change from Aslef, Community Labour Campaign Network
AP reports that Labour Conference will include a call from the GMB union for Labour to set up a commission to “redress the balance” on workers’ rights. Such a commission might be seen as an antidote to the controversial hire-and-fire proposals in the Government commissioned Beecroft report.
Unison has submitted a motion which attacks the public sector pay freeze. It reads: “Conference condemns the prolonged pay freezes that mean public sector workers have had their real terms pay cut dramatically and notes that most of the lowest paid have not received the £250 rise that Osborne promised. Conference believes that depressing workers’ living standards in a recession is self-defeating and contributes to economic stagnation.”