Friday, June 17, 2005

Cook's recipe

GNU LABOUR

Excellent article in the Grauniad today by my neighbour, Robin Cook (he seems to have taken up residence in Chiswick; I have already seen him in the pet shop, and he was jogging on Acton High Street a week or so ago, Walkman plugged firmly into ears - if he'd been New Labour it would have been an iPod - sadly looking nothing like the Foreign Secretary he was once proud to be).

Anyway, Cook's article focuses mostly on the absurdities of New Labour's embrace of the private sector in its so-far abysmal attempts to bring 'efficiency' to public services. He writes:
The justification repeatedly advanced for inviting the private sector to invade the public services is that this will result in greater efficiency. This is contestable on two counts.

First, on an issue of principle. It is naive to imagine that the results of inviting the private sector in will be limited to the efficiency of the outcome and neutral as to the impact on the egalitarian, shared character of public services. A democratic public service marches to a value system that is different to a commercial, private operation, and imposing commercial means will change its end result. It is no coincidence that the rise of private providers in state education has resulted in a growth in selection.

Second, on grounds of practical evidence. The belief that private provision is necessarily more efficient than public is not the result of scientific study but of a collective loss of nerve by those in charge. Private companies that have won contracts for educational services under this government include Serco, which builds missile-warning systems, Jarvis, a construction-engineering consultant, and Group 4, the prison specialists. The factor that unites all these companies is that they brought no knowledge of education to their new business and began by hiring the expertise of the very public-service staff whose alleged inefficiency they were supposed to remedy.


However, what struck my attention most about the article was its opening discussion. Cook observes that the key to a successful business is "product differentiation". He goes on to point out that this is one approach New Labour has singularly failed (indeed, refused) to follow:
[New Labour] has repeatedly stolen the clothes of the Tories, consistently kept quiet about Labour's progressive achievements, such as social justice, and generally tried to narrow the extent to which there is any centre ground left between Labour and its major opponent.

The election result exposed the limits to such political cross-dressing. We ended up convincing a dangerously large number of our supporters that we are to the right of them, and a million of them jumped ship to vote Liberal Democrat on polling day. They will not come back unless they see us embark now on a serious process of renewal of Labour as the natural home of progressive voters and a party with a coherent value-based philosophy.

Before I saw the light, decided to do what I'd always wanted to do and gave up my white-collar day job, I was a market researcher. This exposed me to new products still in development, advertising still at storyboard stage, and goods and services which were about to launch but needed positioning. Time and time again, the quest was for a 'point of difference' which would stimulate the consumer and give the brand or product a distinct location within the marketplace. Sometimes this 'point of difference' could appear quite subtle (can anyone tell me the point of difference between Coke and Pepsi?), sometimes it was quite overt (Channel Five - 'nuff said).

New Labour may think it's as successful as, say, Pepsi but its problem - and Cook* is on the right lines here - is that the danger is of its losing all distinctive identity. Pepsi is always breathing down Coke's neck, but the truth is that the term 'coke' has become generic. Even when you're drinking Pepsi, you think you're drinking Coke - in fact, even if you do know which one you're drinking, you don't care. By moving into Tory territory, New Labour has 'Pepsified' itself. "It doesn't matter which brand you drink, you're getting the same product - just with a difference can" becomes "it doesn't matter which party you vote for, you'll get the same government - just with different faces". All those backbench Labour MPs with wafer-thin majorities over the Tories have a lot to fear from New Labour's quest to out-Tory the Tories. Far from destroying the opposition, it merely validates the ground it stands on. In the end, faced with one crap product or another, and no alternative except to buy something more expensive (mineral water/LibDems), the public stops giving a flying monkey's and picks the first thing it sees on display - or goes home thirsty.

Let's continue with this analogy. Having a point of difference of the type Cook outlines doesn't have to involve an outrageous identity of the sort Channel Five gave us in its early days (although it's now moving into Channel Four's territory, a fight which neither channel will win). BBC1 remains both distinctive and popular - in fact, the attribute most strongly associated by viewers with BBC1 is 'trust'. If New Labour could own 'trust' as a value - just as it seemed to in those heady early days in 1997 - it would deserve every election victory it won, and wouldn't be squeaking home with the support of only 22% of the electorate.


* I'm not going to do a Coke/Cook joke, I can't be bothered.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Fair Vote Watch said...

_Private companies that have won contracts for educational services under this government include Serco, which builds missile-warning systems, Jarvis, a construction-engineering consultant, and Group 4, the prison specialists. The factor that unites all these companies is that they brought no knowledge of education to their new business and began by hiring the expertise of the very public-service staff whose alleged inefficiency they were supposed to remedy._

That's irrelevant, though. It isn't the nature of the actual companies that matters, but the coordinating dynamic of a market that's supposed to bring efficiency savings, and the like. i.e. it isn't necessarily the workers that are inefficient, but the system they work inside.

I'd attack on two fronts. First, like Cook does: it erodes the solidarity of the system. A further atomised society is inevitable. Second, one he misses: there is no 'market' there. Marketizing public services requires the creation of a quasi-market, which will end us just as bureaucratic and inefficient as state provision. It's bollocks (he's having a laugh, BTW, if he thinks state provision isn't also very wasteful).

11:22 am  

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