A very public victory

On 19 January 2012 the City of Edinburgh Council voted against privatisation of the massive swathes of services which it had bundled up in its Alternative Business Models programme. Taken together, the planned seven-year contracts would have been worth around £1 billion. The ‘Our City’s Not For Sale’ campaign had culminated in total victory.

When we launched the campaign to prevent these privatisations in 2010 the city’s services were for sale. It appeared then that the private contracting industry would win a massive bridgehead in local government in Scotland. This campaign was therefore of more than local significance. The success was a testament to the effectiveness of campaigning by UNISON and the determination of the local campaigns against privatisation which sprang up. But it was also a test of the strength of opinion underpinning the Scotland’s public service model. In this article, after an account of what happened I offer some thoughts about what it shows about Scottish politics.

The Alternative Business Model programme was the ‘big idea’ of the Lib Dems, largest party in the council administration elected in 2007, even though their manifesto had said that they were against further outsourcing. It was all about privatisation, though there were certain features which allowed it to be presented differently. The main objectives were ‘cash-releasing efficiency savings’ and ‘plans for service improvement’. This would be achieved by a process of ‘competitive dialogue’ with potential contractors, through which the best private contractor would be selected as ‘strategic partners’. A public sector comparator (PSC) would also be developed to show that the process would offer real additional savings. The ABM process selected groups of services and activities carried out across departments and bundled them together:

  • Integrated facilities management – maintaining public buildings , janitorial and security services, cleaning services and school meals.
  • Corporate and transactional services – Council contact centres, Council Tax and housing benefits, business rates and parking permits, procurement and human resources
  • Environment services – waste collection and recycling, street cleaningand parks.

The City of Edinburgh UNISON branch launched the ‘Our City’s Not For Sale’ campaign in March 2010, knowing that fragmentation of the workforce into employees of four different organisations would have been a starting point for attacks on conditions and pay, loss of members and seriously weakening of the union’s organisational position. The big fear, however, was that this would be the start of outsourcing or privatisation in local government across Scotland; that private contractors would bid low to win the contracts and then even risk losing money in order to get established here; then use them as the bridgehead from which to spread across the rest of the sector. In parallel the UNISON branch had also accepted the Council’s invitation to take part in the ABM process – not an easy decision because it involved representatives agreeing not to share information given to them and perhaps appearing to endorse a process designed with spending cuts and privatisation as an objective.

By June 2011 the Council was saying evaluation of bids for two of the contract areas would be reported in August with recommendations on selection of preferred bidders – in effect the signal of intent to privatise.Almost nobody knew about this so UNISON decided to campaign in the short term for ‘no decision without consultation’. Delay would bring decision time closer to the Council elections in May 2012. It launched an e-petition and invited councillors to its own ‘public consultation’ meeting on 27 June. Only Labour politicians turned up (Labour and Green councillors had opposed ABM all along).

The meeting alerted around 100 activists about the threat of mass privatisation. Councillors were soon getting emails and being asked why they were doing this. To some extent the story was in the shadows of the trams fiasco and so ‘worse than the trams’ was adopted as a key campaigning message. If the council couldn’t handle the trams contract how could it manage the three massive contracts worth £1 billion in total? Another key message was the bias in favour of private bidders. The most obvious example was that private bidders were allowed to close access to the Lothian Pension Fund to new recruits.

At this stage, the most significant development was the setting up of local campaigns in East Edinburgh, North Edinburgh and Leith. Meetings were also organised in Southhouse and the city centre. Campaigners found that Lib Dem and SNP councillors knew very little about the ABM process and did not have any clear views about it either! Lib Dems took the standard council position that if the best private bidders could show ‘step changes in price and quality’ they would get the contracts. SNP councillors said the same but also started to say that in principle they were in favour of services being provided in-house.

The SNP’s shift in the right direction has to be attributed to lobbying from outside and debate within the party. We guessed that the views of SNP MSPs would be as important as those of councillors, and when we sought meetings with our MSPs Kenny Macaskill organised a meeting with all of the five SNP MSPs in Edinburgh, an indication that they were taking the issue seriously.

Labour councillors by contrast were well briefed and opposed to the process. Throughout the campaign the Labour MSPs gave solid support and advice. The benefits of UNISON’s participation in the ABM process now started to be seen. Using their detailed knowledge, UNISON officials had briefing meetings with the party groups in the council which allowed them to hear an authoritative view distinct from that of the council’s top officials.Over the months from June to October the campaign grew, with public meetings, lobbies of the Council, rallies on the Mound, petitioning, local meetings, lobbying of councillors and regular use of electronic media. In contacts with the public we found deep public suspicion of private contractors, and often clear hostility to this kind of privatisation.

The date for the first decision was put back, more than once. Eventually papers recommending the selection of Enterprise as the preferredbidder for the Environmental Services contract were circulated for the Council meeting on 27 October, on the basis of an assessment saying it would give more savings than the PSC. UNISON advocated councillors taking ‘the right decision for the right reasons’ rather than just abandoning the process – that would allow officials to tell councillors that they could be sued by the companies for the costs of preparing their bids. Instead, using the Best Value framework, councillors should take into account a range of factors which were not included in a narrow price comparison.

At that Council meeting the SNP group proposed, and the council agreed, to delay the decision by a month. In addition it decided to hold a public consultation. That event was badly organised, hearing only the case for the Enterprise bid, rather than a comparison of the private and in-house options. But audience members expressed varying degrees of hostility to privatisation and posed numerous well-focused questions. Only two contributors were in favour of privatisation.

At the 24 November Council meeting the SNP group joined Labour and the Greens to create a majority against privatisation, to the intense annoyance of the Liberal Democrats, who voted with the Tories. Two months later Council also rejected proposals to proceed with privatisation of the other two service areas. The campaign had been successful! We had held the line against the advancing forces of privatisation. In doing so we had strengthened support among members and the public, which will be called on as we confront the underlying problem at the Council – massive cuts in expenditure. However in the process of fighting privatisation the unions members have accepted, or at least gone along with, some radical changes in organisation and staffing proposed under the in-house options – jobs will be changed and jobs will be lost, though not as many as through privatisation and there will be no compulsory redundancies.

The ABM campaign was a test of the commitment to the Scottish public service model and of the forces underpinning it.

Despite these qualifications this was a great success and it is worth examining what it tells us about Scotland today. We started unsure how much people in Scotland care about who provides their public services. We now know that a substantial layer does care and is prepared to campaign vigorously against privatisation. What is notable in the UK context is not just that the campaign happened and that it stimulated neighbourhood campaign groups, but also that it was successful. If it is true that this result would have been less likely in England, where many such ‘strategic partnerships’ have been set up, what are the reasons?

The British Social Attitudes Survey shows that “although Scotland is more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best”. I expect that attitudes in several regions like the Northeast and the Northwest of England are similar. Equally, although trade unionism is relatively well-supported in the Scottish public sector this is not specific to this part of the UK alone. What is different, in my view, is the likelihood of success of a campaign against privatisation, which in turn influences the willingness to campaign actively. There are three elements of this which I want to mention.

The first is that the social democratic model is better entrenched within the Scottish ‘body politic’ than in England. Many people are better-informed than me about the history through which this has come about, so I will only refer to some of the most obvious evidence which shows this is the case – the consensus around comprehensive schooling, the retention of Scottish Water in the public sector and the management of the NHS.

The second is the weakness of the pro-privatisation forces. Out-with the debates with the council we did not encounter any serious push in favour of privatisation. Only a couple of advocates of marketisation turned up at the council’s ‘consultation’ event. There were no fulminations in the editorials of the Scotsman, no think tanks pushing this up the news agenda.

The third of course concerns politics, and in particular Scottish nationalism. At the start it would have been difficult to distinguish the SNP’s position on ABM from that of the Lib Dems – they had agreed to set the process in motion and would be interested to see what came out of it!What attitude should a nationalist party take to questions about how to organise public services? On the one hand one might say that neither an in-house or an out-sourcing approach is intrinsically Scottish. On the other, there are arguments that they should be cautious about a process which might see control of and profits from service provision go to companies based over the border.

In fact the position taken by the SNP on controversial local issues appears often to be determined by the impact on national politics, which is logical for a party whose over-riding objective is a national vote for independence. In this case we realised that we had to make the issue of privatisation in Edinburgh council an issue for the national party. The SNP wants to be popular and to give reassurances about a nationalist government so a public row about supporting a classically Tory (and rather English!) policy would be counter-productive. Of course this does not mean that some individual SNP members, MSPs and councillors do not have deeply-held and articulate views against privatisation.

The ABM campaign was a test of the commitment to the Scottish public service model and of the forces underpinning it. It seems remarkable that without the commitment of a few union activists to pursue this campaign, a serious breach in its walls could have come about almost carelessly. Through the campaign, however, its foundations have been reinforced because it has re-run the arguments about privatisation, won them within the ruling party in the Scottish Parliament, consolidated them among an important layer of activists – and shown that we can win.

In retrospect it can be said that the underlying balance of forces were in fact favourable though it did not seem like that at the start. This stems from the overall positioning of the SNP which knows that to be electable it has to compete on social democratic territory. In turn this stems from the creation of a social democratic consensus within Scotland, in large part out of the struggles of the labour movement over the years.