Welcome to the London lockdown

Parliament is moving center-stage as crises of private-sector greed and incompetence are laid before select committees.

On Tuesday it was the turn of G4S, following Barclays the week before.

G4S is a massive global security operation that runs prisons, deports people on behalf of the Home Office, protects Israeli occupation of Palestine and has contracts all over the world.

It’s a company that seems to enjoy close relations with all branches of government – a depressingly familiar story by now, almost the theme of 2012.

It got a huge contract to run security for the Olympics and failed to train or provide the staff to do it. The government panicked and brought in the army.

Or did it?

It’s hard to believe the line that Home Secretary Theresa May aggressively presented to the Commons last Monday – that she knew nothing about the expected shortcomings of G4S until the week before.

If this is so, she must be in a hermetically sealed time capsule.

Her colleagues over at the Ministry of Defense were already putting soldiers on standby to do G4S work and her old friend Boris Johnson in City Hall was telling the Home Office of concerns over the contractor several months ago.

G4S has lost a huge portion of its share value and will have to pay hefty compensation for its failure to deliver.

But there’s a bigger lesson here. Dennis Skinner put it aptly in Parliament on Monday – that the whole obsession with “private good, public bad” has led us in a direction where public policy is invariably directed not at delivering a service directly but of finding a contractor to do it.

Public-sector employment was once the benchmark of secure, fair standards, but now it has to compete with the private sector.

Far from making it more efficient, this seems to take the form of mimicking telephone-number salaries for senior executives and cutting wages and pensions to the level of the insecure operatives who actually deliver for the corporate billionaires.

It can be comforting to attack the individuals involved in the corporate mess, but we have to face the fact that the rot is systemic. Privatizing public services isn’t new.

Its biggest boost was under Thatcher and Reagan in the US. They in turn had seen its “success” in Pinochet’s Chile as a way of reducing trade union strength and rewarding their corporate backers.

We privatized endless services under Thatcher and Major.

New Labour did increase the overall level of public spending on services, but its favored model was to use contractors to increase “efficiency.”

School meals, for example, were once delivered by properly employed workers who knew and understood the children they were feeding.

Care workers who knew and cared for the elderly they were helping were employed by councils. Once upon a time this was normal.

But Tony Blair was obsessed with the “third way,” and his recent very odd interview with Andrew Marr confirmed that he’s still plowing that furrow, calling for public responsibilities to be handed to his friends in the private sector.

Our low-wage, insecure workforce has provided huge wealth to global corporations like G4S.

Maybe the shock to shareholders and pension funds which have invested in G4S will force a more forensic approach to these bodies, which seem to be too big for national governments to control.

With the Olympics now on, the contrast between Britain’s image in the world and the reality of our society is laid bare.

Anyone arriving at one of the airports will be met with long queues. Non-Europeans will be subject to lengthy and intrusive questioning.

Anti-drug dog-teams will sniff their luggage and when they make it to a train or bus station they will be greeted by ranks of unsmiling armed police.

Central London is increasingly looking locked down.

At the Olympic venues huge security operations are now run by the army, which patrols the 11-mile electrified fence around the main site and conducts checks on anyone trying to get in. It’s an image far removed from tourist posters. And there’s more.

The amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean is stationed in the Thames. There’s a no-fly-zone over London.

Anti-aircraft missiles have been installed atop the iconic former Bryant and May factory where the matchgirls held their historic strike.

All this is part of the price we pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Bush and Blair’s infamous “war on terror.”

Then there’s the funding. Ever since the less than successful Los Angeles event of 1984 this has become a mixture of huge public spending on venues and a corporate jamboree where even the Olympic logo seems to have been sold to McDonalds, Coca Cola, Cadbury’s and a few brewers.

Anyone else using or displaying it can be fined.

The decision-making surrounding the Games is murky.

There’s a distinct lack of democracy.

National committees in search of the games fawn before the enormously powerful International Olympic Committee and the attendant corporate interests who want to “sponsor” them in return for exclusive marketing rights and tax-breaks.

Dubious companies like Dow Chemicals, which has still to adequately compensate the victims of the Bhopal disaster, are welcomed, no questions asked.

The same is true of countries that deny women the right to participate in sport or be represented, such as Saudi Arabia.

When Ken Livingstone led the bid for a London Olympics he sought to address the poverty of east London and the need for regeneration.

The Games were supposed to leave a legacy of public parks and social housing.

Does anyone really trust Boris Johnson and his cronies to ensure that the crowded and poorly housed of Newham and east London will actually benefit from the Games or believe that the facilities built at huge public expense will not end up in private hands, unaffordable for the majority?

The welcome of the Olympic torch showed that many young people feel positively about the Games and appreciate its real spirit.

But that spirit is being lost amid corporate greed and the security state being imposed on London for the next month.

The Games should be about peace and athletics, and the enjoyment of the fantastic cultural mix of London – that is why they came here in the first place.

This article was originally published in Britain’s Morning Star newspaper. The author has been a Labour Party Member of Parliament since 1983. Photo: Stewart Cutler // CC 2.0


Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn is a Member of Parliament in Britain for Islington North. He was the leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party from 2015 to 2020 before being forced out by the party’s right-wing and neoliberal faction. For decades, he has been a dedicated leader of the peace movement in Britain.