Take a drive through Liverpool city centre and it won’t be long before you come to a symbol of Britain’s rotten corporate culture. As our NHS comes under unprecedented pressure, the replacement for the ageing Royal Liverpool hospital still stands tragically idle.
Its PFI contract was terminated after the collapse of Carillion, a company that continued to be handed public money despite years of warnings over its conduct. As the company’s debt soared and suppliers went unpaid, executives protected their generous bonuses and shelled out dividends to shareholders.
This conflict between public need and private greed is a story that has defined our country for decades, and to which many grim chapters have been added in recent months. In 2020, Britain has faced not one but two crises: the Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s handling of it.
My constituency office has been inundated by those who have suffered the consequences of both. It started with health workers asking for the protective kit needed to do their jobs safely, but soon spread across the economy. Workers couldn’t access sick pay, or were left out of the support schemes; others were made redundant or forced to work in dangerous conditions.
Then there were those who tried to navigate the testing system. One Liverpool mum was instructed to drive 70 miles to south Wales with her husband and autistic child to get a test, only to find the centre had closed for the day having run out of supplies. There were dozens of stories like hers.
From PPE to care homes to the disaster of test and trace, people at the sharp end of government failures can’t expect so much as an explanation, never mind an apology. Quite simply, there is no accountability. It is a political culture that is eroding what little faith the public has left in our democratic institutions.
These failures can’t be explained by incompetence alone – though there’s plenty of that to go around.
Under the cover of the pandemic, the government has awarded contracts worth billions of pounds to private companies without competition or transparency.
The eye-watering £12bn pumped into the failing test and trace system has gone into the pockets of scandal-ridden private contractors – most notoriously Serco. If Covid-19 has reminded us of the value of concepts such as public good and community, Serco represents everything that is their antithesis.
Ministers have a responsibility to the public to justify why huge sums of money are being handed out to private companies that have plenty of political connections but precious little expertise in public health or track record of delivering the life-saving services and equipment they are contracted to provide.
When I recently asked what penalties would apply to private companies that failed to meet the terms of their contracts, the answer made it clear: none whatsoever.
The pandemic response will keep failing as long as it continues to be top-down, privatised and unaccountable. It won’t be possible to get a grip on the virus until the response to it is community-based, publicly run and accountable. Nor will we restore faith in our failing politics.
Now must be the moment the country says “enough” to the plundering of public goods. The transfer of our common wealth to corporate interests demeans the collective endeavour that has sustained our communities through Covid-19.
There is, however, a better way, and it is already being provided at the grassroots by the decent people of this country. Across Britain, networks of mutual aid groups are springing up to meet the most urgent needs, to care for those whom politicians and profiteers have left behind.
Local co-operatives, food banks, community hubs, credit unions: these are the organisations people are turning to. While the government’s handling of Covid-19 continues to pile crisis on top of crisis, it is services run by the community for the community that are lifting people out of hardship.
We remain indebted to those key workers on the frontline, putting themselves at risk to keep us all safe. We clapped for them – when what we really needed to do was listen to their trade unions and their demands for living wages and workplace safety.
This floundering government continues to resort to any kind of distraction to avoid accountability. Already it is engaged in divide-and-rule, now playing one region against another as the second wave builds.
Many are now taking responsibility for themselves and their communities. They are stepping in where years of cutbacks have allowed too many to fall through the cracks.
Here are the shoots of a better, fairer and more sustainable economic model, with democratic control and ownership at its heart. It is that spirit of people having a real stake in society that will provide answers to our immediate problems today, and build the foundation for a better government tomorrow.
• Dan Carden is the Labour MP for Liverpool Walton