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How Labour’s lesser-known pledges will change the face of public procurement for the better

SINCE the conclusion of the 2015 leadership election, there has been no shortage of headline-grabbing socialist policies emanating from the Labour Party. 

But in 2017, buried deep within the detail of a radical new manifesto, Labour made two pledges that have been little discussed, and largely overlooked.
And it’s easy to see how this might happen, in a manifesto brimming with radical progressive socialist policies, and the continuing churn of socialist policy pledges ever since. 

But — while overlooked — they are pledges that will undoubtedly change the face of public procurement for the better.

Organisations seeking the award of public contracts under an incoming Labour government will have to recognise trade unions before being considered, and they will also be covered by the Freedom of Information Act as Labour widen the scope of FOI.

At the moment, organisations outside of the public sector that are awarded public contracts are not in scope of the Freedom of Information Act — introduced by Labour — removing their accountability for the services they are paid to deliver on behalf of the public. 

Labour policy on this should be seen as simply closing a loophole, as many will be surprised to learn that the organisation emptying their bins, or running their local prisons, are not subject to FOI for the work they carry out on behalf of the public.
There is much to be said, too, for the pledge to award contracts only where trade union recognition is in place, but of course trade union recognition should only be a starting point for strengthening public procurement rules. 

It should not be underestimated that the award of public contracts holds a key to altering poor employment practices across a range of industries, and pressure should be kept on the Labour Party to go further than just requiring recognition agreements with our unions.
Indeed, the direction of travel from an incoming socialist government will undoubtedly be to “insource,” something that has been successful in my home borough of Halton recently, where leisure services previously run for private profit have been brought in-house. 

But strengthening procurement rules will still have a powerful impact on any organisations that seek public contracts, and — if enshrined in legislation — Labour could future-proof such an impact, creating a legacy that any future governments will find it difficult to unpick.
Naysayers will tell you it won’t work, that any increase in regulation serves only to alienate business. 

Much the same as they decried the introduction of a minimum wage, their prophecies are built upon a false narrative that better working conditions are incompatible with successful service delivery. 

But the “Preston model” has shown what we already know — that strengthening procurement rules can work successfully.

Labour must use the example of Preston to demonstrate that, once in government, public contracts can be used to drive up the standards of working conditions across the country. 

The much-revered Preston model continues to gain global attention, with so-called “anchor institutions” (such as the local authority, Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner, social housing landlord, and university) adopting procurement protocols that are aligned with each other. 

While they source labour and materials locally where possible, the key to anchor institutions awarding contracts is quality of delivery and a weighing up of the social value of organisations bidding for contracts.
Labour’s little-discussed pledges to strengthen public procurement may have been overlooked for now. 

But set against the wider picture of improved workers’ rights, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and real investment in public services, these two pledges are set to play a big part in creating stronger, better public services and rebalancing the relationship between worker and employer.
Enshrined in legislation and forming a successful model of public procurement across the country, it would take some going for even the hardest of right-wing governments to consider repealing.
And so these pledges offer much more than their face value. They offer a chance for a truly socialist incoming Labour government to create a “new normal.” 

Executed correctly, they will be integral to the next Labour government creating a society upon which workers hold power and value, and every penny of public money is truly accounted for. 

But we cannot relent in pursuing more from a socialist Labour Party, demanding the strongest living and working conditions globally, and creating a democratic and accountable public sector.


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