A majority of people in the UK have always had a hunch that it makes no sense to run public services for the benefit of private shareholders. Public ownership is extremely popular amongst Leavers and Remainers, old and young, across regions, social classes and political divides. A majority of Tory voters want public ownership of rail and water.
Between 2017 and 2019, support for public ownership increased. After 40 years of unthinking ideology, Labour brought public ownership into the mainstream with its 2017 manifesto policies. As these ideas got more airtime, support for bringing the railways and water into public ownership increased by six points. Support for renationalising the Royal Mail increased by seven points. And support for bringing buses into public ownership increased by nine points.
And let’s remember the conversation that wasn’t happening during the election. No one was defending privatisation. Privatised industries and the mainstream media weren’t defending rip off rail fares, polluted rivers and beaches, care workers being rushed off their feet, corrupt academy headteachers. They couldn’t defend Branson suing the NHS, the failures of G4S or the collapse of Carillion.
It was widely felt that none of that was defensible – and now, there’s a new consensus in favour of public ownership. This week, We Own It launched our public ownership pledge tracker. We’re thrilled that all four leadership candidates have now confirmed their commitment to public ownership in ten key sectors – the NHS, schools, water, energy, the railways, buses, the justice system, Royal Mail, council services and broadband. This means Labour is clear about ending the rip off where money flows directly into shareholder pockets while we all pay more in fares and bills, in taxes, or both.
We’re wasting £13 billion on privatisation every year. That’s £250 million every single week wasted on shareholder dividends, inefficient fragmentation and the higher cost of borrowing in the private sector. But every day during the election, our Google alerts were filled with new stories that wrongly insisted public ownership would cost too much. That was simply a well-resourced lie.
Of course, the day after the election, the stocks and shares of privatised utility companies soared as the threat of a Labour government evaporated. This is what it looks like when a political party actually challenges vested interests and stands up for people in a real way. It’s brilliant news that whoever the new Labour leader is, they will take forward the common sense, popular idea of public ownership. But this is bigger than Labour. As Graham Ruddick argued in the Times, the business world has not won the argument and some ‘un-Tory policies’ may be needed to solve real world problems.
As of last week, both the East Coast and the Northern rail franchises have been taken into public hands by a Tory government. Rail is the classic example of privatisation failing – but the arguments for bringing it into public ownership apply across the board.
The railway is a natural monopoly where you don’t really have a choice as a consumer – exactly the same arguments apply to water and the energy grid, where there’s no choice at all. The railway is a network where it makes sense to cross subsidise investment to provide a service to everyone – exactly the same arguments apply to buses, the Royal Mail or broadband.
The railway needs money to be reinvested instead of leaking out to shareholders – the same arguments apply to our NHS or to the justice system. The railway needs accountability mechanisms for passengers – just like academy schools or council services need a voice for parents, teachers, communities. To the extent that Brexit was motivated by a desire to ‘take back control’, for accountability and decision making closer to home – its supporters are not going to be happy if distant investors continue to profit from our vital services and natural monopolies.
Most people want our NHS back in full public ownership (it’s already being privatised) not subject to the whims of US healthcare and drugs companies. They want to end the default ban on the British government running a railway and stop relying on state owned operators from other European countries. They want Northumbrian Water to be run for people in North East England, not Hong Kong shareholders.
Public ownership is the norm across so many European countries – from water in Scotland to the Post Office in France, from the railway in Switzerland (the best in Europe) to the Netherlands, where it’s actually illegal to privatise water or energy networks. Even the US has much more public ownership than people realise.
This agenda is forward-looking but it’s not radical. We need a mixed economy. Private companies can do many things well – running public services isn’t one of those things. Privatisation has totally failed to tackle the challenges of the 21st century – most of all the climate emergency. If we’re serious about getting people out of cars and planes, conserving water and switching to renewable energy, we have to bring our vital services into public hands.
Public ownership in the 21st century should involve citizens, workers and communities in governance structures. All publicly owned organisations need new duties – to decarbonise, make sure everyone has access to services, work closely with communities and steward public land and assets.
Boris Johnson has committed to delivering broadband across the country, but the government’s own report shows doing this in the private sector will cost an extra £12 billion. Johnson has also committed to quadrupling offshore wind power. He has an opportunity to deliver this with a ‘fantastic’ new British publicly owned company that delivers jobs while tackling climate crisis – instead of leaving publicly owned Danish wind power to lead the way.
We won’t get the decent public transport, green energy, clean rivers, fast broadband coverage and of course the good hospitals and schools that we need without public ownership. This is common sense. It will happen sooner or later. Labour is fully on board. Now for the Tories.