Thursday, July 20, 2006

Labour, the public, and the power of business.

The Guardian gives a nice analysis on why UK businesses might favour Labour -- and how badly that screws over the left. There are some choice observations that I want to talk about:
It is deeply unfashionable to suggest there was anything to be said for the old system, where the unions financed one big party and business the other. But why is it an improvement for business to support all the major parliamentary parties?
Indeed. It's pretty clear that democracy constricts when one interest group controls the agenda of all the major parties. This is unfortunately the case in both the US and Canada (the NDP are significant, but not major; and the same applies for the Bloc -- neither one really has a hope of governing at this point). The question, though, is why anti-labour attitudes are taken to justify their exclusion from strong political involvement, while anti-business or anti-corporate attitudes are not taken to justify their exclusion from involvement.

The obvious point is that these positions are really on par: both knee-jerk reactions without rational support. As long as there are big and powerful corporations, there need to be big and powerful unions to oppose them; if business are all (relatively) small, then unions need only be small and grassroots-oriented. The two structures tend to work best when in constant opposition. I know that anyone who's had to live through a strike, on any side, might think this is crazy: but, strikes are a morally neutral part of this necessary and valuable antagonism between business interests (which are primarily oriented towards money-making) and labour interests (which are not). Strikes are the most overt instance of conflict between the two groups, but this conflict tends to go all the way down through the organizational structures -- even to the level that managers and unionized workers don't even eat lunch togethere.

The point is that the pendulum has swung too far, and business interests are being privileged far in excess of what is good for society. Money-making over everything else would be as crazy as allowing labour to have each and every little thing they ask for. (Which is not to say that everything labour wants is unreasonable -- a minimum (living) income, for example, is quite reasonable, as are pensions and other benefits. It is to say, though, that money-making isn't always an evil goal -- only money-making unchecked.)

The article also draws attention to another possible consequence of allowing money-making to proceed unchecked -- it might harm the general public interest:
... Labour, mainly through private finance initiative (PFI) projects, has developed far more attractive channels for private capital to invest in the public sector. In return for building hospitals or schools, companies are offered, in effect, a guaranteed income stream for running services over 20 or 30 years. So lucrative and risk-free are these deals that many companies that entered early PFI contracts could refinance their borrowings at much lower rates of interest, thus boosting profits to stratospheric levels. In some cases, according to the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, shareholders enjoyed returns of more than 100%. They could not have dreamed of such rewards if they had set up and run schools in a genuinely open and competitive market, with all its risks of failure.
Reading between the lines a little, the suggestion is that privately-built hospitals and schools are being set up such that the public bears all the risk (inadequate levels of service, for one), while the backing businesses are guaranteed their investment will show profit.

Personally, I don't care where the money to build public infrastructure comes from. No one sane does (or should). It's not the source of the money that's the issue: it's the quality of what you get for the money. And it seems invariably true that, if the money comes from the private sector, then what you get benefits their interests (money-making), regardless of the interests that should be served (e.g., for schools, education of children). Introducing labour back into the equation won't help serve this goal, for labour's interests are not always (or even often) public interests. However, the fact that business' interests would be opposed at all opens up the possibility of a challenge on another front.

On the whole, a tripartite dialogue between business, labour and the public seems as if it would yield greatest overall social benefit. So, why is it that public discourse -- ranging from parliaments to newspapers -- focuses almost exclusively on business?

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