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Why Blair should heed the wreckers

OH dear, Tony Blair is at it again - the "small c" conservatives, the scars on his back, and now the wreckers - we've heard it all before. But it's deeply worrying, because it shows he simply doesn't take seriously the doubts many people have concerning the privatisation of public services.

The vast majority of us - including the unions if their members are properly protected - aren't against some private involvement in public services, if it genuinely improves the service. But wholesale "reform" or "modernisation" is another question. We don't know if it would work - and we have quite a bit of evidence that it might not.

Railtrack is a particularly horrible example. (Who was it who warned the Major government it would be a "poll tax on wheels"?) But the key problem now is that none of us has confidence that Tony Blair really understands the implications of his approach. He won't brook opposition to his policies because he can't engage in the sustained dialogue from which something better might emerge.

Has he really got a grip of the nuts and bolts of issues such as NHS reform, for instance? When I interviewed him three years ago, I realised that his is a quick, shallow mind. He's a lawyer who can effectively master a brief prepared by someone else, but his real understanding remains paper-thin.

Of course, he has many clever advisers, but few have hands-on experience of actually running things. How many of them ever challenge him? How many really understand how to manage a big organisation or - even more so - the ins and outs of complicated financial deals?

We know the moneymen will always want to turn a quick buck - that's their raison d'etre - and we also know they're highly adept at concealing this and will profess any of a hundred virtues in order to close a deal. Does Blair believe that he and his chaps are so immune from manipulation that he can not only ignore but rubbish anyone who questions his privatisation policy?

As it happens, some individual private initiatives have been quite successful in education. But others have not, and we still don't know if private companies can really run schools so much better that the associated loss of democratic involvement and accountability would be worth it. But what is really disconcerting is that Blair does not seem to have moved on at all. As circumstances change, policies which were drawn up away from the heat of the battle need to adapt to take account of the realities of the world. But the Prime Minister keeps banging the same old drum, as if the entire identity of New Labour is tied up with its willingness to privatise.

Childishly, the British public wants a low-tax American-style economy with European levels of public service. Well, it can't be done. Our hospitals and schools and roads and railways were run down by the Tories over 18 years. Nothing like that happened in the rest of Europe. So the "privatisation" mantra is the only solution that a government fresh out of ideas can think of whereby a massive amount of money might magically be injected.

But that's not going to happen either. The private sector will never get involved without the certainty of profits. The story of the education action zones and, before that, Kenneth Baker's city technology colleges, demonstrated that.

And as for the naive notion that private is always more efficient than public, I have one little word to whisper in Mr Blair's ear: "Edexcel".

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