We need a bigger and different public sector

Submitted by AWL on 13 April, 2020 - 9:46 Author: Tom Zagoria
Homeless

Tom Zagoria, a London-based activist in the Labour Homelessness Campaign who also works in homelessness provision, spoke to Sacha Ismail.

One background to the crisis is a decimation of the positive aspects of the state’s capacity. There has been criticism of decisions about the lockdown and so on, and I’m sure are lots of weaknesses there that reflect pressure from employers – but there is a wider and longer-term problem.

We’ve had more than a decade of big cuts in local government and other services. There are more and more hoops people have to jump through to access services, and a great distrust between people experiencing homelessness and local authorities, which is still a barrier to people getting help even when they are terrified and want to get off the streets. Outsourcing to the voluntary sector is another factor.

Some councils have suspended rules that limit access to services – “no recourse to public funds” for migrants, and requirements about having a “local connection” – but this is patchy. The Mayor of London’s office has said that in London-wide shelters, essentially big hotels, NRPF rules are suspended, but the access point is local councils, many of which are still operating the rule.

It’s not just a matter of lack of joined-up thinking, or even a bad approach by council leaderships and officers, but the whole way the public sector has come to function.

The Labour Party is not making these arguments. It’s not pushing to consistently suspend NRPF, let alone making the political case it should be abolished.

Part of the point is that the limited concessions that have been made – new forms of income support, housing rough sleepers, some relaxation of various rules – will be taken away again when this crisis ends. If the message is that the government is doing a good job in a tough situation, and we’re all on the same side, it doesn’t put us in a strong position to fight when things are rolled back.

Joining a national unity government would be a very bad mistake. It might allow the left to regroup against Starmer, but the wider point is that the labour movement needs to be an independent voice.

The political mood is complicated, but I do think there is a “Never again” feeling about the NHS and other issues. If the Tories want austerity 2.0 after this crisis I think it will be harder than last time.

During the election, canvassing in areas like Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, areas we lost, there was nonetheless a strong hostility to austerity, although unfortunately a lot of people believed Brexit was the answer. So we could see opposition grow. Labour should be raising clear demands for that opposition.

Labour should demand immediate requisitioning of empty buildings to provide enough housing that everyone has somewhere decent to live. Not on the basis of private-provision and profit – putting people in hotels and giving money to the big hotel chains. In the NHS, we need a much stronger stand against privatisation, bringing services back in house, as well as better funding. We need an integrated public sector in which private companies are not taking profits from our services.

What we’re experiencing now is not just a result of cuts but the earlier progress of neoliberalism, for instance privatisation under New Labour, when services were improved on the basis of injecting private money and private control. We need arguments about democratic control and workers’ control of public services instead. Obviously we want more spending, but we need to get beyond the idea that more public spending is in itself a left-wing policy. We need state spending and state provision organised in a way that can benefit people above capital.

I think the insecurity people are feeling is only going to get worse with more natural disasters, including pandemics. The left needs to say we can’t rely on the market, that we need collective and democratic solutions and ultimately a very different economic model. Obviously it will require a lot more class struggle to achieve that, but we can starting making the arguments.

What’s your assessment of where things are at in Labour after the leadership election?

I voted for Long-Bailey. We don’t have time to lick our wounds but we do need to consider and discuss. We should try to recreate the more open and pluralist and lively left that organised behind Corbyn in 2015. There are various initiatives appearing, for instance Labour Transformed and Forward Momentum.

I think a technocratic approach is where the left has gone wrong. In 2017 there was an excitement around the kind of left populism Labour represented, despite the lack of a strong workers’ movement base, but then instead of trying to develop that base the line was, right, we’re the government in waiting, let’s get suited up and go for meetings with the City of London. Even in 2019 when we had a more radical manifesto the policies were introduced at the last minute and in a way it felt less radical than 2017.

That carried over into the leadership election in that RLB seemd to represent the more technocratic side of Corbynism: left policies put forward from above by a lawyer who would perform well in the media. We weren’t able to convince the membership that we had a useful alternative vision to Starmer, so his pitch about electability worked.

If we’d had more of a base in unions and social movements and if we’d developed radical policies and arguments further back, it might have been different. In the end, it was all pretty tame.

So what now?

Focusing on party policy and campaigning makes sense. Lots of members were convinced by Starmer, or alienated by aspects of the left, but still want left-wing policies. As do lots of people beyond the membership. The more the left is serious about developing policies and pushing for them to be taken up the more it can reassert itself. We need to do the kind of work we did at Labour conference last year, but it needs to be sustained and developed between conferences and linked to pushing for democracy in the party.

The Tories seem determined to push through a hard Brexit at the end of the year, despite the pandemic. What do you think the labour movement should argue?

In terms of the immediate argument about extending the transition period, yes, this is a common sense demand and it’s urgent that the Tories are pushed back - particularly for the sake of those migrants who are seeing their window to apply for settled status disappearing during the pandemic. The labour movement should stop trying to ignore the issue and start pushing.

However, I think the argument needs to be not about remaining in the EU but about the impact the Tories’ plans will have on vulnerable people as well as the wider working class. I’ve come around to the view that we can’t viably oppose leaving the EU. Tying our internationalism to EU membership and structures is a mistake, because the EU is representative of a real issue about lack of democracy and control. I’m not trying to claim that the drive for Brexit, or the sentiment backing it, was left-wing, but I do think the issue about democracy is real. If we counterpose ourselves to that, rather than accepting Brexit will happen while arguing for international class solidarity, it will be self-defeating.

I know superficially similar arguments are made by Stalinists whose “internationalism” amounts to support for authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world. We should distinguish ourselves not by trying to stop Brexit but by reasserting socialist arguments and fighting hard on issues like free movement. Even in terms of the immediate question of extension we need to emphasise that what concerns us is the impact on the working class, not “the economy” in some abstract classless sense.

If we slip into support for the EU, rather than internationalism as such, it’s another manifestation of the technocratic approach I criticised before.

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