Carillion’s spectacular demise reveals the brute vampirism at the heart of privatisation, writes Lindsey German
The Carillion affair has had a devastating effect on the whole question of privatisation. Just as the Grenfell fire marked a watershed over public housing, so Carillion highlights everything wrong with a system of private greed and profit alongside public sector austerity. This sense will be highlighted by the fact that someone will do all right out of all this. The Financial Times reported at the weekend that private equity and distressed buyout firms were ‘circling’ around Carillion hoping to make a profit by buying up and selling on its remaining assets - cherry picking as it’s called. As the FT points out, ‘The prospect of investment funds picking up Carillion’s best assets at cut-rate prices could add to the political difficulties confronting Downing Street, which has faced criticism from unions and opposition MPs for relying on the company to perform critical public services.’
The saga is shaping up to be another masterclass in what’s wrong with capitalism. The company has received huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to run essential public services on the basis that the private sector was more efficient. That was lie number one, but it allowed the destruction of public sector jobs, and the worsening of wages and conditions. It made shareholders and directors very rich, supposedly for taking risks. In fact, whenever risk arose, this was something expected to be underwritten by public money. When Carillion was found to be in financial trouble last summer it still managed to win new government contracts. Now in liquidation, the losers are still its employees who have already taken a hit to future pensions, employees of other subcontracted smaller private companies, and indeed some of those companies themselves.
Perhaps most laughable was Theresa May’s claim that the government was a customer, not a manager, of Carillion. This was a customer which gave money that it collected in taxes to the company, in order to provide public services which it is obliged to provide. It effectively handed these over to Carillion allowing it to pay huge salaries and dividends precisely because it shouldered so little risk.
Privatisation of public services is a total racket. It allows agreement between government and giant corporations - facilitated by top civil servants many of whom then move over to working for the privatised companies - which is ideologically acceptable to the neoliberals of the Tories, Lib Dems and right wing Labour, extremely profitable for the companies concerned, and a means of seriously weakening workers’ conditions and wages.
Yet still it continues, with never a flicker of shame or regret from successive government ministers. The failure of this privatisation is there for millions to see, and Labour must do everything in its power to prevent further such moves. It is a symbol of all that is wrong with it that someone like Richard Branson can get his hands on major rail networks, NHS services and much else. It is clear that the state of the prisons, the NHS crisis, and the destruction of parks and amenities have all been made worse by privatisation, and that the only way we will see improvement in these services is by taking them back into public control.
Jeremy Corbyn understands this and is speaking out strongly about it. The unions too, whose members are at the sharp end of its consequences, must organise collectively to demand all these services are taken back into public ownership. The terrible state of public services is the responsibility of these companies and of governments which have presided over its decline. But to reverse this policy of decades will take concerted action across the working class movement to force a retreat, and to bring down a government of millionaires which has no interest in protecting jobs or services.
This is, above all, a class issue: the main victims of the privatisation process are working class people, as workers or consumers - as well as having paid for these services in the first place. We really shouldn’t be putting up with it any more.
A new phase in the politics of war
I attended a conference called by Solidarity with the People of Turkey in London on Saturday, and chaired a big and very interesting session on Turkey and war in the Middle East. As we spoke, Turkish planes were attacking the Syrian Kurds in Afrin. The Turkish government regards the Kurds as an implacable enemy and is determined to defeat them. Turkish president Erdoğan also calculates correctly that this invasion will strengthen the reactionary forces in Turkey on whom he relies for support.
This Turkish intervention appears to have at least the blind eye of the Russian government which has hundreds of troops in the area and control of its airspace. It is in conflict here with the US which has backed the YPG in its fight against ISIS and which is helping build a border protection force. But the US is unlikely to do anything to lead it into further conflict with Turkey. Solidarity with the Kurdish YPG is of course essential. The Kurds have established their own enclave in Rojava, where they have attempted to build a very different society from the sectarian and war-torn one which dominates so much of the region. They have relied on US air cover to help entrench their position and have acted as effectively ground forces for the US. This is now changing, and turning into a new phase where the whole intervention of different powers in the war, which has now been raging in Syria for seven years, will come to the fore.
The battle against ISIS isn’t totally over, but it has largely been contained. Now the question is, who will control Syria and the wider Middle East? The main enemy here in the minds of many of those powers is the key question dominating the Middle East - what will happen with Iran? Bitterly opposed by Saudi Arabia and Israel in the region, a key player in the Syrian war, and an implacable enemy of the US going back 40 years when the revolution overthrew the Shah. Each of the powers who have intervened in Syria in this catastrophic war will seek to promote their own interests. So we are seeing not the end of this war but its latest phase. I have said before that it reminds me of the Thirty Year’s War in Germany in the 17th century, which continued at the cost of great human misery because none of the powers concerned had an interest in ending it.
When we consider the huge level of militarisation today, the wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, the aggressive role of NATO - of which Turkey is a key member - then the danger of permanent war is very real.
Interestingly, last week the US signalled that it is shifting away from its main war aim of fighting terrorism to refocusing on inter-power conflicts. That means, crucially, Russia and China. So expect greater militarisation and increased confrontation.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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