Is the public sector worth defending?

workI have a lot of time for Polly Toynbee but she is on to a loser with this ‘public sector good/private sector bad’ nonsense. Toynbee is angry about what she sees as cynical propaganda against the public sector:

Day after day an insidious poison is fed into the nation’s veins, spreading anger and cynicism about everything in the public sector. Nothing works, billions are wasted, public servants of every kind are pointless jobsworths feathering their nests and twiddling their thumbs.

She goes on to point out that much of the criticism of public sector waste comes from freemarket evangelical thinktanks. I’m sure it does and I’m sure these guys have their own agenda. After all, rightwing attacks on benefit cheats often carry the barely concealed implication that, because some people abuse the welfare state, then the welfare state should be abolished or privatised. So it’s not beyond probability that the Taxpayers Alliance would be happy getting rid of tax and public services full stop – especially given that it writes things like ‘How tax havens can make us all better off’.

But the public sector isn’t the haven that Toynbee claims. It has to be said that if you are starting out in the job market you’d be crazy to take a private sector over a public sector job – because the public sector pays more and is less (though not much less) vulnerable to the craziness of the market. In fact there is a stampede towards the public sector from people who’ve been laid off by private firms. Climb to the top, and the rewards are palpable – many council chief execs earn more than the prime minister.

But low-paid public servants have been handed an effective pay cut for several years running. Unsurprisingly there have been strikes but to my knowledge nothing has changed. Public sector workers can be made redundant, their jobs could be outsourced to a private company or religious charity, or they could be deployed somewhere much worse. The job for life culture is long gone.

The public sector can be more fun that the private sector. But it carries the same downsizing paranoia, hierarchical horse-trading and gutter politics. It also contains just as many bullies, sycophants and frauds as private industry.

To pit the public sector against the private sector is a dangerous and stupid dichotomy. It’s not public versus private. It’s the workers versus the boss class.


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