Because I categorically refuse to value my own time, this weekend I read Labour leader Keir Starmer’s 11,500-word epic, The Road Ahead.

By the time I got through it, many had already noted that the Don-Delilo’s-Underworld-sized document manages to say almost nothing in its many, many pages. And I agree, insofar as it offers few concrete details of what Starmer’s party would actually do with power, were they voted in.

Indeed, much of the essay’s politics are expressed almost like those astrological birth charts everyone loves now - broad and inoffensive enough that you could pose them to almost any person or party and you’d get a resounding “OMG, this is literally me!”

Better paid jobs? Yes, great – love it. But what political party is going to run on a lower wages platform?

READ MORE: Starmer must learn the lessons of Welsh Labour

The lack of meat on the very brittle bones of this essay aside, there is a lot you can glean from it. While you don’t get much in the way of policy, what you do get is paragraph after paragraph of description; Starmer (or whoever it was that put this thing together) telling you how it is.

What this ambient fluff communicates to you in its storytelling is how the author sees our society – what’s wrong, and what’s right – and there’s quite a bit to be unnerved about in this respect.

There is some very Patel-like performative talk of upping prison sentences as a solution to deep, socially-rooted problems, and some very ominous language around antisocial behaviour – a term that can mean anything from “playing music loudly” to simply standing around in a way that makes passers-by feel “alarm”, with all the racial implications that carries.

This is probably unsurprising, given Starmer’s past as Director of Public Prosecutions, presiding over the 24-hour courts that put youngsters in prison for stealing bottles of water and cans of spray paint during the 2011 London riots, which broke out following the shooting of young Black man, Mark Duggan, by police.

“Security for the British people does not just exist at work and at home,” Starmer writes.

“It must also mean security from those elements of society who blight others’ lives.”

Yikes.

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While I have a lot of thoughts about the paranoia and general iffy-ness of those passages, and about his constant use of “hard-working” as a synonym for “good person”, I truly don’t have the column inches. So instead, I’ll focus on the other thing this document gets excited over, which is evangelising for the virtues of the private sector.

“Business is a force for good in society,” it asserts, adding that “business has been let down” by the Conservative governments of the last ten or so years. Poor Business.

(Just as an aside – the word “business” comes up 29 times in The Road Ahead, but “Wales” appears just once)

Starmer believes that the state shouldn’t “stifle” the private sector, but work in partnership with it. He posits that the UK is currently at a crossroads, with the “same old insecurity and lack of opportunity” down one end, and a Labour government working in partnership with a “brilliant” private sector down the other.

Herein lies the problem; governments working in partnership with the private sector is the same old.

This has been the default setting of the UK since Thatcher, and it only ramped up under Blair. For years, councils routinely locked themselves into wildly expensive 'Private Finance Initiative' contracts - large private companies built schools, hospitals and roads, which councils would then lease back – and those costs are still being paid back.

Not only are those projects expensive, they’re also risky.

Up until 2018, construction giant Carillion ran through England’s public services like a stick of rock, providing everything from PFI hospitals to road maintenance. When Carillion collapsed, it stalled the building of two hospitals, impacted around 220 English schools and left over 2,000 people without jobs.

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This shaky, money-pit of an idea cannot and will not solve the problems ahead of us. This is 2021, not 1998, and we cannot afford to gamble away our futures on harebrained schemes that have already proven themselves to be immensely harmful.

I bring this up here, in a Welsh news service, because our own government is also afflicted by this ideological hangover from the Thatcher years.

The Welsh Government has in recent years introduced the 'Mutual Investment Model', which it takes great pains to emphasise is not PFI, but looks and sounds exactly like PFI.

This Definitely-Not-PFI model is behind the current works to the Heads of the Valley road, which will cost more than £1bn in public money, despite the work itself being worth only around half of that.

The new Velindre cancer centre in Cardiff, at the centre of the Save the Northern Meadows campaign, is also an MIM project.

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Last year the Welsh Government placed the wellbeing of Welsh renters in the hands of private landlords; those struggling with Covid job losses were encouraged to negotiate a discount with their landlord, or else apply for a low interest 'Tenant-Saver Loan' to cover rent (it never occurred to them to offer the scheme to landlords instead, if they really were struggling that badly without their passive income).

After around six months the loans were scrapped - it turned out very little of the £8m set had been given out, with some applicants rejected for having poor finances.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but the changes required to ensure the world survives the next fifty years – and that the surviving world is pleasant to live in - are fundamentally incompatible with the private sector’s aims.

Curbing emissions requires the dismantling of lucrative fossil fuel companies. Air travel will have to be reduced, particularly among the wealthy. Homes will need to be insulated.

Making so many big changes so rapidly will require efficiency and a commitment to spend. The private sector, which exists to make profit, will only ever seek to minimise costs and maximise reward. Corners will be cut.

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It’s hard, too, to imagine that 'green jobs' provided by the private sector will be anything other than the same high-pressure, low-paid work that already dominates, just with workers building electric cars instead of regular ones. Ensuring good pay and conditions, of course, would “stifle” business.

Reader, my head is in my hands.

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