(I wrote this for the October 1989 issue of Nalgo Action )
Birmingham City Council – Model Managers?
With Labour leading in the opinion polls it’s worth having a good look at how a Kinnock government would treat public services. The ‘new model’ Labour Party’s view that its job is to ‘manage’ capitalism is already being put into practice by Birmingham council. Their policies might set a pattern not only for other councils but also for a future government.
Events in Birmingham have only recently begun to take shape. But it is clear that a distinctive strategy is emerging which bears little or no relation to the ‘dented shield’ policy which preceded it.
At the centre of the policy is a sort of ‘corporatism’, an attempt to turn the council itself into a corporate business – Birmingham City Ltd. This policy is being developed by top officials and leading councillors. The aim of the policy is to ensure the survival of the council not as a dented shield or to meet social needs but as a business organisation promoting ‘industry’ and managing services. That business has four main features to it:
- prestige projects
- public relations
- new management styles and industrial relations
- a type of economic development, linked to local business.
The two most visible prestige projects are the ‘Super-Prix’, the motor race round inner city Birmingham!, and their Convention Centre. The left in Birmingham has tended to shy away from the issue of Super Prix because they say it is misleading to suggest that redirecting the money spent on the race would really answer the appalling problems of Birmingham’s education, social and other services.
This is true and it is vital that we constantly re-emphasise that the Tory attack on local government is responsible for that situation. But because the Super Prix is a high profile issue with national implications it is important that we oppose wasting money on a motor race when basic services are in crisis.
It is a publicity stunt for big business — a major sponsor of the Super Prix is Halfords and lots of Tory MPs turned up to vote the bill to allow it to be held. Who is a director of Halfords? Dennis Thatcher.
The new Convention Centre is much the same – but means a big capital expenditure and enormous debt charges incurred. It all means squandering the future to give a high profile to Birmingham Council Ltd, and boosting local capitalists.
Obviously a key task these days for any capitalist concern is to promote itself. The council is doing this by commissioning a £20,000 video, by a massive poster campaign, by increasing talk of uniforms for employees, by news management. The aim is to create a ‘corporate identity’. All this is an insult to those desperately in need of council services.
Traditional management styles in the Council have been paternalistic. That was bad enough but it’s now being replaced by a new private sector style with lots of talk about efficiency, flexibility, multi functionalism, the right to manage. Power is ‘devolved’ to local managers. So the council almost welcomes the Baker Bill making headteachers into local managers, or compulsory competitive tendering giving power to DLO managers.
All this of course is an implicit attack on employee’s conditions and on the unions.
The council’s plan is that it should survive by becoming a corporate body which promotes and services big business — and they call it economic development. A symptom of this is the transfer of the council’s training functions from the Education Department to the Economic Development Unit. Training is the establishment of massive YTS and ET schemes to service the employment needs of local bosses.
This trend is permeating every department. In the Libraries resources are being poured into establishing a supposedly self-sufficient business unit to supply their information. At the same time the council refuse to get involved with campaigns like the Library Campaign in defence of free library services, which many Labour councils have never seen problems in giving lip service to before.
In Birmingham a new model for local authorities is being tested. It is true that much of this has always been the hidden role of the local state; but it has been mixed with the local state as a defender of the working class. Even the ‘dented shield’ theory, however absurd, said it believed in defending people.
These changes shift the ground: attacks on union organisation are vital for their success — they are inherent in it.
Equally it is union organisation and strategy that can defend jobs, conditions and services. This can be done by public campaigning but more importantly by traditional industrial action.
If the dreadful model which Birmingham represents is not to be copied elsewhere it is that kind of action which is needed.
Commentary From 2020
I have left this piece completely unedited (with the exception of a few grammatical corrections) and would start by acknowledging what I see as the one big error. This is the attack on the construction of the Convention Centre – perhaps in 1989 I did not fully understand its purpose or perhaps I was wrapped up in the urgent political demands of the moment but I never attend a concert/gig in the fantastic Symphony Hall without recalling our opposition! Having said that I could very easily live without the Convention Centre bit especially when it hosts the Tory Conference.
Despite this I have to say I am pretty bloody proud of this article. It seems that I identified quite a few of the main features of the New Labour Governments of 1997-2010 well in advance of their implementation. The Dome, Alastair Campbell, more power to Managers and continued attacks on Unions, close relations with Big Business – it was all foreshadowed. Unfortunately the period from 1990-97 certainly did not see the building/rebuilding of Union organisation (despite some valiant if small-scale efforts) because everyone was too concerned with getting Blair elected. Which is what makes the article pertinent in July 2020 as we behold the horror that is Keir Starmer betray every principle, throw out every vestige of Socialism. Starmer is the Birmingham Labour Council of 1989 who in their turn were Blair. Don’t touch him with a barge-pole.