Corruption. Conservatives. And the other big c-word here, really, is contracting-out.
Contracting-out of public functions has expanded hugely over decades, since the 1980s. It generates lush and repeated profit-chances for those who can make the introductions, drop words in the right ears, or just give inside knowledge on the right notes to strike in applications.
The squall about sleaze set off by the affair of paid-lobbying MP Owen Paterson comes on the back of two great contracting-out scandals which, somehow, so far, the Tories had managed to navigate with little punishment.
The PPE emergency in the early days of the first wave of Covid revealed that the NHS’s supply and logistics operation had become a web of contractors and sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors. Maybe four sets of fingers would draw their slice between the NHS and each actual supplier. The system ran with inadequate reserves and was slow to respond in emergency.
“VIP lanes” gave the well-connected first taste of the profits as the panicky government handed out extra contracts.
Test and trace was set up on the same contracting-out principles, with vast profits for contractors like Serco and Deloitte and many subcontractors, but (so parliamentary inquiries have found) little to show in actual virus-curbing for all the millions spent.
The first socialist answer is to reverse contracting-out and bring the operations in-house.
To get efficiency and clean-dealing in directly-run public operations: workers’ control, election of managers, opening the books (abolishing commercial secrecy).
Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership is failing to call even for elements of that. Instead, it hopes to benefit from the in-fighting unleashed among the Tories while committing itself to no more than tweaks to the system of checks on MPs and ministers installed after the cash-for-questions scandals of the mid-90s.
Possibly this bout of scandals will burst the Johnson bubble, and the minimal tactic will work in the opinion-poll short term.
But remember. New Labour, with its motto (from Peter Mandelson) about being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” had its own cash-for-influence scandals in 2008-10.
Patricia Hewitt became a special consultant to Alliance Boots in 2008, very soon after retiring as New Labour health minister. In due course she became a special adviser to a private equity company which bought out Bupa’s UK hospitals.
In 2010, Hewitt, still an MP, was suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party along with two other ex-ministers and another MP, after a cash-for-influence investigation. Another ex-minister would soon be banned from Parliament.
Yet Keir Starmer’s self-proclaimed mission is to bring Labour again closer to “business” and “the private sector”.
The working class stands at the opposite pole to the Serco bosses and profiteering MPs and ex-ministers. We need the labour movement to fight to win back the riches they confiscate, and redirect them to restoring public services and benefits, remedying the cuts, and helping workers to catch up with price inflation.