Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 11 November 2000
First the nation’s rail service grinds to a halt after a fatal accident, apparently caused because routine maintenance is considered a luxury by the privatised company responsible for rail infrastructure. Then the long-awaited report on mad cow disease shows a quite extraordinary dereliction of duty by government and officials convinced that the agricultural industry needed less intrusive regulation in order to flourish. Almost simultaneously, a spell of inclement weather reveals that recent relaxations of the rules governing new building have led to thousands of homes being built where they are likely to be flooded any time it rains a lot. And now we’re all on tenterhooks awaiting the next round of protests against fuel taxation to see whether a handful of fat blokes will again bring the country to its knees by blockading the handful of refineries that normally supply our oil products “just in time”.
Yes, the past few weeks have given us a string of wonderful advertisements for letting the spirit of enterprise run free (or rather with the lightest of regulatory touches). It all looks marvellously dynamic for a while, a few people make a lot of money by cutting corners on safety and otherwise ripping us off – and then everything either collapses in scandal or seizes up completely.
Sorry, but things look a lot better the other side of the Channel. All right, I know all about floods in Italy, BSE and farmers’ fuel protests in France and truckers creating mayhem in Germany. But at least over there they manage to keep the trains running, if not always on time.
For all the fashionable nineties neo-liberal talk about “Eurosclerosis”, no continental European country has been reduced to the pitiful state of Britain by the tribulations we have all suffered in the past few months.
I’m not arguing that the rest of Europe is perfect, or even that deregulation is always wrong (have you tried to buy a loaf of bread in Germany on a Sunday?). It seems to me incontrovertible, however, that economies in which the essentials are more strictly regulated, with key transport and other infrastructure in the public sector, work better overall – even if, week-on-week, when everything is going well, they seem to accountants to be less efficient.
A genuinely pro-European social-democratic government in Britain would now be making the case vigorously for the European model of regulated capitalism against those who would let the free market rip. By contrast, Tony Blair and friends have kept mum. I’d like to think that they’re embarrassed by the way that they embraced so wholeheartedly the neo-liberal enthusiasm for deregulation. But I have my doubts . . .
On a different matter entirely, I’m amazed at the scanty coverage in the national media of the crisis that has hit the London borough of Hackney in the past month. To cut a long story short, the council will be declared bankrupt unless it makes gigantic cuts in spending – to the tune of £18 million – to claw back a £40 million deficit. Half its council tax is uncollected. More than 17,000 residents are owed outstanding housing benefit. Hundreds of local businesses have not been paid for work they have done for the council. Estimates of the number of workers Hackney will have to sack range from 500 to 1,000. Just about every senior officer is desperately searching for some way of jumping ship.
It is not quite on the scale of New York in the 1970s, but it’s big news all the same – not least because it raises serious questions about the much-vaunted pragmatism and responsibility of New Labour in local government.
It is true that, since the mid-1990s, Hackney has not been the Labour stronghold that it was before, and that at least some of the mess can be put down to a brief spell of Liberal Democrat administration and before that to a bout of vicious in-fighting among Labour councillors that resulted in a substantial breakaway from the Labour Party. But Labour councillors close to the party leadership nationally have been the dominant force in Hackney politics since the mid-1980s, and they were in power for most of the long period of incompetence and mismanagement that has led the borough to the brink. Anyone who suggests that Hackney’s problem is the loony left running riot is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.