Strong backing for public ownership will propel Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to power, writes NEIL CLARK
AT THE Labour Party conference in Blackpool exactly 40 years ago this week, then prime minister Harold Wilson made one of the most prophetic speeches any politician has ever made. He warned of the extremist direction that the Conservative Party under its new leader Margaret Thatcher was heading in, and how, if her party was elected, Conservative policies would adversly affect Britain.
“I want you to mark this,” Wilson declared. “The party which a century ago Disraeli committed to the cause of ‘One Nation’ is now proclaiming across the world their resentment at what they regard as ‘the rich becoming poorer and the poor becoming richer.’
“The political philosophy of a once-great party has now been asserted. Not a claim to unite the nation, but a policy to divide it. We have been told, on impeccable and undeniable authority, that the pursuit of inequality for its own sake is now to become an end in itself. It is now to become the altar, the deity, before which they seek to prostrate themselves — and the country.”
To some, Wilson’s warnings in 1975 might have sounded far-fetched. But Thatcherism, as he so correctly pointed out, did mark a real and radical break with the egalitarian politics of the post-war era. Too many on the left did not appreciate just how much of a threat Thatcher posed, until it was too late.
Forty years on from Wilson’s speech, there are at last signs that this incredibly regressive chapter in our history may be coming to an end. In Jeremy Corbyn, Labour now has a leader who wants to break with the neoliberal policies first introduced by the Conservatives in 1979 (and continued by Labour when in office from 1997-2010), and which have done so much harm to our economic and social fabric.
Of course, New Labour politicians in the Blair years talked the language of progressives. They assured us their aim was to reduce inequality and fight for “social justice.” But the give-away that these people were not on the real anti-Thatcher left was their opposition to public ownership and their acceptance of the privatised economy that they inherited.
In fact, this support for a largely privatised economy, along with support for Western military interventions against countries which resisted finance capital-friendly globalisation, became integral parts of a phoney elite consensus which emerged in the 1990s.
Labour and the Conservatives converged around a neoliberal-neocon programme of wars and privatisation which made the super-rich even richer. Disillusioned with what “mainstream” politics had to offer, millions of Britons stopped voting altogether.
However, as Corbyn’s stunning success has shown, this elite consensus — laughably called the “centre ground” by members of the punditocracy who themselves share these extremist far-right views — is most certainly not where public opinion is in 2015.
The Labour candidate most committed to public ownership in the party’s leadership election, Corbyn won a landslide victory. Andy Burnham, who had pledged a publicly owned railway, came second. Yvette Cooper — who had scoffed at Corbyn’s renationalisation plans — trailed in third, while Liz Kendall, the uber-Blairite candidate cheered on by members of Britain’s “elite journos” club, was routed in fourth, scoring just 4.5 per cent of the vote.
Support for public ownership undoubtedly helped to propel Corbyn to the Labour leadership. It can also help him and Labour return to power in 2020.
For it’s not just Labour members who have had enough of privatisation. Polls carried out by the Money Saving Expert website, founded and edited by Martin Lewis, found large majorities in favour of public ownership earlier this year. A poll in late January showed that 86 per cent of the 10,742 people who voted were in favour of nationalising the railways. And 75 per cent supported renationalisation of the gas and energy companies.
Corbyn has already pledged his support for bringing these sectors back into public ownership, but what is interesting is the level of popular support for other renationalisations too: 84 per cent want private water companies to be renationalised, 81 per cent want the Royal Mail to return to public ownership, 61 per cent want the same for bus services and 51 per cent want directory enquiries (118 numbers) to be renationalised.
Just about the only sector where support for the privatised status quo significantly exceeded support for renationalisation was aviation, where only 18 per cent wanted to see British Airways renationalised. But in every other field, the public opposition to privatisation was striking.
These and other polls should encourage Corbyn and Labour to put public ownership at the centre of their programme for government. The case for bringing back clause four, or something very similar to it, is overwhelming. For not only is public ownership clearly very popular, it would also enable a Corbyn-led Labour party to achieve some of its other important goals.
Take the reduction of inequality. It’s no coincidence that in the period when the level of public ownership in our economy was at its highest — the mid to late 1970s — we also had the smallest gap between the rich and poor in our history.
Private ownership of property is one way in which wealth inequalities grow. The more of an economy that is in private hands, the more unequal that society becomes. Conversely, the greater the share of public ownership, the lower the inequality.
Anyone who talks about reducing inequality in Britain without calling for a programme of renationalisation is being intellectually dishonest. A Labour Party pledged to reduce inequality, but which doesn’t have clause 4, is bound to fail in its goal — whatever promises its leaders make. Just compare the record of Labour in government in reducing inequality when it had clause 4 with its record when it didn’t.
A commitment to a major programme of renationalisation would have other benefits too.
It would mean that the cost-of-living crisis could finally be tackled at source. A hallmark of the privatisation era is the public paying far more for basic services than they would do if the services were provided directly by the state with no shareholder dividends to pay. We’ve had year-in, year-out above-inflation increases in rail and bus fares, gas, electricity and water bills. Bringing all these services back into public ownership will enable prices to be lowered and make everyday life less hard for the millions of Britons currently struggling to make ends meet.
Support for renationalisation would also allow Corbyn to counter Tory criticism that he is “unpatriotic.” The fake patriotism of the neocon Tories sees them wrapping themselves up in the Union Jack while selling off British infrastructure to foreign-owned companies, some of which are owned by governments of other countries. It’s totally unacceptable for George Osborne and co that the British state runs train services in Britain — but it is OK for the German state. It’s considered “extreme” to call for renationalisation of energy companies, but not extreme to allow strategically important national assets fall into foreign ownership.
While the Tories will of course denounce any plans to renationalise, the biggest barriers to Corbyn will come from Blairites within his own party. These neoliberal cuckoos in the Labour nest will do all they all they can to derail renationalisation plans and maintain the status quo. But as the Labour leadership election has shown, the Blairites, while still popular among the punditocracy, have miniscule support among the Labour membership. The more party decision-making is democratised, the greater the chance of Labour making a clean break with the Blair-Brown years and restoring its historical support for public ownership.
The hard-right extremists that Wilson warned us against 40 years ago are now warning us of the “extremism” of Corbyn, claiming that he wants to “take us back to the 1970s.” The only sensible response of any true progressive should be: “Bring it on!”
Neil Clark is the director of the Campaign for Public Ownership, @PublicOwnership. You can follow him on Twitter @NeilClark66.