The Labour Party and Public Procurement – Please Be An Opposition This Time!

Westminster tubeIs it too much to hope that the Labour Party might actually be an effective opposition over the next five years?

During the past five years, it was a source of fairly regular amazement that in terms of our areas of interest, around government procurement, efficiency and related matters, Labour failed to offer any sort of opposition, challenge or alternative agenda to what Francis Maude was doing as “Minister for Procurement.”

Now it is not necessarily that we think the actions he took were all incorrect or even largely incorrect. A lot of good work was done over the past five years. But there were numerous occasions when an effective opposition could have spoken up to criticise the government or offer different solutions and ideas. But Labour didn't.  Even if we agree with the actions of the party in power, some debate, some different ideas and views must be good for procurement and ultimately will lead to better practice and results.

So when the figures for SME spend were published quite recently showing that in reality, the proportion of direct spend with smaller firms by central government just has not budged for the past few years, you might have expected Labour to point this out as policy failure. But there was nothing.

When Maude created the huge central organisation that is Crown Commercial Services, there could have been a credible push-back in terms of how that was increasing bureaucracy, centralising power, and making life more difficult for smaller and local suppliers. But nothing.

There was a bit of short-term noise about the West Coast Rail fiasco, but again, Labour did not follow up with their own proposals about how commercial skills might be improved across the public sector.

When Spend Matters exposed the almost criminally bad engagement process, dreadful contract and stupidly high day rates that MOD were paying to consultants Alix Partners, you might have expected Labour to turn it into a major issue. Nope.

Now maybe procurement issues aren’t top of the agenda when it comes to the election, but being seen as a credible alternative government requires some attack on other parties’ ideas, motivation and competence, and putting forward some of your own alternative ideas. And a strong opposition would look to do that across all the areas of government, including procurement and efficiency. Labour’s failure to do that during the 2010-15 period was indicative of a party that ultimately the electorate did not think was ready to rule again.

So pull your fingers out, Labour, and let’s see some challenge this time round. It will make our lives more interesting as reporters in this area as well, and may contribute a small amount to getting you in a position to win in 2020.

But there is one other factor of course. Maybe the main opposition to the Conservatives will come from the SNP. Are they going to be interested in procurement, I wonder? There’s a question for another day!

Voices (6)

  1. Dan:

    I suspect that if you conducted a poll among MPs as to what procurement actually does, the result would probably be:

    About 1% would be able to explain it, would give procurement more responsibility for achieving various policy aims, but would then not give them the power and influence needed to do this due to some obscure blind spot or organisational incompetence.

    About 70% would confuse procurement with getting three quotes for everything.

    The remainder would probably respond, in hushed tones, “that’s something to do with, err… you know… the girls from the agency, right?”

  2. Sam Unkim:

    When the “right product & right place” is a crucial drug at a patient’s bedside.
    The lack of progress over the last few years in verging on criminal recklessness.

    Where has Labour been in, holding the Tories, to their Atlases & grand annoucements

    Burnham, I wouldn’t trust you, to be able to weaponise a half a bottle of petrol, a rag & a lighter…………Let alone the NHS

  3. Ian Heptinstall:

    Maybe they make the implicit assumption that procurement is a simple handle turning process, and other than choosing one supplier over another, there isn’t anything much that can be done to change value or performance. If you believe it is just about common sense and gut feel, then anyone can do it.

    I’m sure there was a quote from Francis Maue saying something like “procurement being the admin process between specifying what you need and a contract”. If Labour have a similar view no wonder they don’t get excited about it.

  4. Ian Heptinstall:

    Maybe they make the implicit assumption that procurement is a simple handle turning process, and other than choosing one supplier over another, there isn’t anything much that can be done to change value or performance. If you believe it is just about common sense and gut feel, then anyone can do it.

    I’m sure there was a quote from Francis Muse saying something like “procurement being the admin process between specifying what you need and a contract”. If Labour have a similar view no wonder they don’t get excited about it.

  5. Iain Stewart:

    Excellent commentary Peter. Interesting how none of the major parties seems to make the link between effective procurement, operational efficiency, and the deficit. So much easier to think in silos, apparently!!

  6. Paul Wright:

    The SNP are very interested in procurement, but only as far as it involves Scotland as far as I can see.
    The Labour politicians I have spoken to do not have procurement on their radar. It is only a small number but I dont see any evidence that they are out of touch with the rest of the party. Not spoken to amy Conservative or Lib Dem MPs

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