Category Archives: Nationalisation

All together now…there are more than two types of production ownership

A fascinating YouGov poll entitled ‘Nationalisation vs Privatisation: the public view’ has been published, with results in brief accessible here: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/05/19/nationalisation-vs-privatisation-public-view/ and a more detailed, in-depth table here: https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/uufxmyd8qm/InternalResults_170518_nationalisation_privatisation_W.pdf that showcase the country’s views on ownership of several of the country’s most important industries.

It is a relatively mixed bag produced by a cross-party sample of slightly fewer than 2,000 adults. Some results, such as the substantial support for renationalising the energy companies and privatisation of the telephone and internet providers, surprised me. Others, like the tiny percentage in favour of privatising the NHS, did not.

I like studying polls of this sort because they offer quite a clear picture of the economic consensus embedded in the population. I have a feeling that much of the growing support for state involvement in major sectors of the economy is down to a mistrust of the market; exacerbated by both the 2008 financial crash and other consequences of the neo-liberal period, such as the ripping apart of the middle class.

Admittedly, the sample is quite small, but I don’t think larger samples would suggest that this poll is especially anomalous. It appears to me that the country has steered slightly to the Left on the economy, but since most do not think in terms of ideology, it means very little for Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral prospects. A party breakdown of beliefs is provided and yields quite interesting results. Labour and Tory voters, more alike on policy issues than they will ever care to admit, are most sharply divided over rail ownership.

There is, though, something else about polling such as this that concerns me. The title of it and the options given to those who took part are very misleading and assume that only two different kinds of production ownership exist. It is crucial for the sake of informing political debate over public policy that people are reminded of the forgotten third option. The means of production in a society can be arranged through nationalisation, privatisation or worker control of industry; which can itself be described as the very core of socialism, where producers take control of production.

Omitting the third option in polling is to be understood, of course. Adding in ‘worker control of industry’ may create unnecessary confusion and boost the likelihood of a ‘don’t know’ response. But polling is not the only incentive for this post. This past week, the country’s major parties have all released their manifestos ahead of next month’s General Election.

Much of the commentary since particularly the Labour and Tory manifesto reveals has circulated around whether or not Britain can afford to renationalise certain sectors of the economy and whether it is a viable solution to the problems we are facing. Plans to bring the Royal Mail, railways and National Grid back under public ownership, as well as introducing a National Investment Bank and National Education Service, have prompted misleading newspaper headlines about the 1970s and the now conventional bashing of state socialism, which is less electable than it has ever been (in part due to the UK’s staggering levels of public debt).

Direct worker control of industry, therefore, ought not to be left out of public debate because it may represent the alternative to neoliberal capitalism that the Left has been searching for over the last forty years. The Labour Party of the last two years has openly referred to itself as a socialist party, so why doesn’t it support producers taking control of production instead of managing industry itself?

As long as the Left pushes for government programs which increase borrowing, public spending and taxes, it will not be able to formulate a constructive alternative to neoliberalism. It must recognise the value in low-tax, democratising policies like worker control of industry if it is to avoid further swelling of our national debt and more hits to its voter base.

I make no comment about whether worker control of industry is preferable in each individual sector or to the efficiency of production as a whole. To make judgement would be difficult at this stage. I also reaffirm that I am not a socialist. I merely think clarification is useful where it is not being applied by politicians or by the media.


Reflections on railway renationalisation and a Tory Brexit

My apologies, firstly, to readers for the general inactivity at the blog since the middle of April. This has been down to juggling work at a new job and the completion of my journalism dissertation, which I submitted on Thursday evening.

My hope is to achieve the 2.1 that will allow me to continue my studies into Masters level, with my eyes currently set upon an MSc at Royal Holloway in ‘Campaigns, Elections and Democracy’. I should now hope to return here frequently for the foreseeable future.

In my absence, this year’s General Election has gotten under way. A portion of the Labour Party’s manifesto has been leaked, and thanks to pledges to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail and energy sector, has been described as taking the UK ‘back to the 1970s’.

It may be worth remembering for a moment that Germany, a modern and well-run country, operates nationalised rail and worker-run energy co-operatives. Northern Ireland, too, (incidentally a part of the UK) retains public control of its rail system.

For the record, I don’t support renationalising Britain’s energy sector, but local, energy co-operatives, similar to those that exist on the continent do not sound like such a bad idea. I do admit to succumbing to the appeal of democratic ownership of utilities and co-operative privatisation (worker control of industry) of Royal Mail may be popular amongst postmen and women.

As far as our railways go, the ongoing debate around public and private ownership would seem to me to be a secondary issue. The primary issue is upgrading infrastructure and investment, and cancelling the vast amounts of money we seem keen to spend on vanity projects like HS2, which stands only to increase London’s workforce and damage the rural environment of the midlands. Any strong government ought to, by now, have scrapped such madness.

Britain’s rail infrastructure is predominantly Victorian and not entirely electrified, much to our national embarrassment. The billions put aside for HS2 should be re-directed towards modernising track and signalling, and towards investing in more medium-speed, medium-distance inter-city railway lines. London is too often used as a connecting city for long-distance travellers making their way across the country (and often finding themselves paying extortionate amounts).

The question of who owns rail services is made less important still by the fact that there need not be one single system of ownership, as demonstrated by the state operating of the East Coast mainline until March 2015. Britain’s rail system is not only franchised, it is regionalised, which means that, with very few exceptions, services are all co-ordinated independently of one another. The state can retain ownership of some lines whilst allowing for others to be run privately, depending on factors like performance and quality of service.

Immediate renationalisation would not make the running of rail services particularly cheap. As I have said, it is the cost of maintaining infrastructure, due to its age, that sets the cost of British rail travel above that of the rest of the continent. Upgrades to infrastructure ought to be at the centre of any debate about Britain’s railways and present a far more pressing concern than discussions over ownership.

I will not vote for the Labour Party on June 8th, but the aforementioned leaked manifesto content doesn’t look to me as if it will take us back forty years. This is merely dishonest Tory propaganda, no doubt aided by the incompetence of figures like Diane Abbott, who do nothing but discredit the Left and its labour movement.

Meanwhile, the Tories sit firmly in the driver’s seat of this election. They are rightly standing on a platform of seeing out the Brexit process, but of course, they are doing it for the wrong reasons. Many of them do not support out withdrawal from the European Union and thoroughly resent last summer’s referendum result. My vote for them in June (if I bother or indeed remember) will be more out of obligation than anything else.

I am at least glad that the Liberal Democrat leader this time around is Tim Farron, and not a young and fresh Nick Clegg, who managed to sweet talk the country into voting for him seven years ago. Thanks to Farron’s confusing position as leader of a party with which he has profound moral disagreements, the Lib Dems are not quite the force they could be.

Knowing that I was an adamant leaver, some readers might think that I am relieved the Tories are in poll position to win this General Election. This is not quite so. Something about the party’s (and indeed the Prime Minister’s) track record over the European question is cause for concern in my mind.

A couple of days ago, David Cameron made a comment that sparked some degree of doubt in my mind. He said that Mrs May needs a big majority so that she can “stand up to the people who want an extreme Brexit, either here or in Brussels.” It is a shame that UKIP can no longer muster the strength that it did back in 2014.

UKIP formed the ideal barricade against sentiments of this kind within the Conservative Party. There are many who call themselves conservatives, despite their continued existence that Britain should not govern itself and control its own affairs, who are fanatically supportive of the European project and of ceding parliamentary sovereignty.

When these people (Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan and George Osborne to name a few others) use the expression ‘extreme Brexit’, they demonise the reasonable belief held by large sects of the country, including especially much of the Tory grassroots, that the United Kingdom should control its own trade, borders, lawmaking and judicial process, no matter the difficulties which undoubtedly lie ahead.

Mr Cameron’s comments reminded me that placing complete trust in the Tories and giving them a free hand over such an important issue might not be advisable after all. We’ve heard ‘Theresa May’s hard Brexit’ quite a lot in recent months, but increasingly my fear is that when it is all said and done, Britain will no longer be halfway in the EU. Instead, she may find herself perching halfway out in what will look like an especially embarrassing position.


How do we renationalise already-public railways?

It is extremely disheartening to see the country that gave the world the railways so vastly inept at running them. It is also rather painful that, in addition to our inadequate rail system, we seem totally incapable of understanding what kind of structure we currently have in place and how to improve upon it.

Last week I wrote at this blog about grammar schools and how the argument surrounding them has been deliberately skewed to fit a certain agenda, and that we weren’t arguing about what we were ought to be arguing about. The railways debate is similar in this regard. We are told something about our railways (that they have been privatised) that isn’t true, and have to put up with figures in authority arguing over how to potentially make them worse, at considerable expense to the taxpayer.

On Tuesday evening’s edition of ‘Newsnight’, after the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to reinvigorate British transport, Labour’s shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald failed to make the case for the renationalisation of the railways. He moped and moaned about a relatively small amount of money being paid to TOC (Train Operating Company) shareholders in the form of profit, to the tune of more than £200m last year, a tiny figure when compared with the over £9bn raised in passenger revenue.

Because, despite its obvious failings, what has been called privatised rail (a franchise system, which isn’t ideal for the running of any railway system) has benefitted the rail industry. In truth, Britain’s railways are only very partially privatised, and as the Adam Smith Institute have shown in the following series of graphs: http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/regulation-industry/what-would-we-consider-a-successful-railway-system privatisation within the rail sector has consistently boosted passenger usage numbers, satisfaction and efficiency. It is particularly interesting to see many of the counter arguments to this fact (such as the cost of driving and government subsidy) so swiftly debunked.

And here is the key: *partial privatisation* clearly isn’t good enough. Far from having private railways, we have a centrally directed or publicly regulated system of rail; insurmountably different to a free market one. Network Rail, at fault for much of the country’s infrastructure complaints, is a publicly-owned company set up by the last Labour government. All tracks, stations and signalling are serviced by the state. Let us also look at subsidy within the industry (necessary in many cases, but also a clear sign of state intervention). Pages 2 and 4 will be particularly helpful for readers:

http://orr.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/18842/rail-finance-statistical-release-2014-15.pdf

You may also note that while direct state support is in relative and nominal decline, these figures were provided by the Office for Rail Regulation (ORR). Also, you guessed it, an extension of government. Britain’s railways are in large part financed and regulated by central government – and thus out of the hands of the privateers responsible for certain franchises.

So what would a further-privatised train and rail network look like? Well, personally, I’d like to see a more vertically integrated system, whereby Network Rail is privatised and TOCs are able to operate in track, station and signalling maintenance on the routes and services that they provide. This is how railways were initially organised in the nineteenth century, with small, private companies overseeing both service and maintenance. This, it seems, would allow for better communication within the system, as TOCs would not have to rely on the efforts of a separate body (who have largely proved themselves to be incompetent) to deal with issues concerning rail infrastructure.

Also, I am always baffled by the lack of competition between providers. Why are contracts necessary, for instance? And why must the government administer them? There is some limited competition between Virgin and London Midland on part of the West Coast line, and similar choice between First Hull Trains, East Coast and Grand Central between some destinations on the line to Edinburgh, so why is intra-route competition not much more common?

Of course there are physical limits to the number of services that can be run on a track at one time, for reasons concerning health and safety, but it would strike me as being reasonable to suggest that many more routes across the country, even smaller, inner-city services, could benefit by introducing more than one provider. Particularly if state subsidy is slowly withdrawn, multiple companies being allowed to run identical services would ensure that natural market forces could dictate the cost of travel.

If you look at the period between 1829 and the early twentieth century, predominantly free marketers and private capital are pumped into Britain’s growing rail industry. A large part of the problem today emanates from the fact that much of our rail infrastructure is Victorian. Britain’s railways are by far the most expensive to run in Europe, and for this very reason.

Our railways face many challenges. But they have not been ‘privatised’, in the traditional sense of the word. Anybody who bothers to look at the extent to which the government is involved in their running will slowly come around to the same conclusion. Which of course begs the question: how do we renationalise already-public railways?

 


A Sunday reflection on the week’s politics

I thought, for a change, that Sunday might be quite a good opportunity to sit down and reflect on the week’s politics, in a slightly different format. Whether I make this sort of post a weekly deal (I may well choose to do so) or not, I’m not absolutely sure as of yet. The post will not necessarily be in an order of any real importance but will include segments of news that have interested me over the last few days.

Project Fear hits the Premier League

There aren’t many things the ‘remain’ camp won’t say or distort in order to secure an EU stay after June 23rd. They know that football (and specifically the Premier League) is at the very core of British culture, and scaremongering over the importing of foreign players will no doubt present a great way of striking fear into what seems to me to be a heavily undecided electorate.

Not only did BSE (Britain Stronger in Europe) make the claim that various players would no longer be allowed to take part in English football, they also took the time to compile a list of players at each major Premier League club that, allegedly, would not have been able to move to the country without EU membership. I knew that our resident europhiles were unambitious and misguided, but I never had them down as clairvoyants.

Apparently those at ‘Stronger In’ don’t spend too much of their time following football (or logic, for that matter). Work permits are a common fixture inside the Premier League, allowing players to be transferred across continents with very little trouble at all. Problems seldom occur, and many talented players from outside the European Union have enjoyed great success in the UK.

Sol Campbell understands this simple concept. Why don’t Britain’s EU fanatics?

Another ‘Leave’ campaign enters the fray

How many unique campaigns now have their sights set on Britain’s departure from the European Union? With Grassroots Out, Vote Leave and Leave.EU currently the caretaker triumvirate in active competition for the mantle of official designated leave group, the phrase ‘too many cooks’ comes to mind.

In hindsight, this referendum’s ‘leave’ campaigners haven’t organised themselves particularly well. One campaign was enough to present the arguments for an exit, and so Friday’s news that a new Left-wing competitor, ‘The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition’, has thrown its name into the hat didn’t exactly fill me with joy.

I’ve sought to avoid baseless tribalism in recent months; opting for membership of both ‘GO’ and ‘Vote Leave’ in an attempt to meet more people and be as active as I possibly could be. I don’t have a dislike for any of the campaigns per se, but a more unified approach to the summer showdown could well have been preferable.

I am happy that the Left have representation as we march towards the end of June, as a European Union exit isn’t just about those of us on the Right, but I do feel that such a late inclusion will only splay and ignite more tension.

People can represent any campaign that they so wish, but the bickering and political point scoring must come to end; if not for the sake of those involved, then for the sake of our EU membership.

Is this a ‘Ta ta’ to British steel?

How sad it is to see a magnificent beacon of British industrialisation beaten to its very knees by incompetent politicians, dumping and malicious energy costs. I feel for workers at Port Talbot, and would very much like the government to save our steel industry (one of the few bright spots across the UK’s manufacturing landscape).

I’ve been sceptical over the weekend as to whether renationalisation was the way to go to combat the issues our steel faces, but if no other option presents itself, then renationalise we should. Since state aid ‘in principle’ is not generally permitted across the European Union, government intervention will likely be tricky to coordinate.

If Sajid Javid fails to salvage what is left of our steel industry, he may as well say a brisk goodbye to his integrity and any future cabinet positions. He has a tough job ahead of him, but so long as thousands of innocent, hard-working steel workers are not dumped onto the welfare system, he’ll get a pass from me.

As the signs read only a couple of days ago, we bailed out the banks, now it’s time we bailed out our steel.

Praise for the Mail on Sunday

Pleased I most certainly was this morning to read about the Mail on Sunday’s belated (but nevertheless necessary) campaign targeted at the government concerning the extortionate amount of money that Britain gives away in foreign aid.

The feature, based on Friday’s leaked report which revealed that over £170m had been spent over the allotted £12bn budget, encouraged readers to sign an e-petition which calls for the government to re-think the policy and consider putting some of the money to better use.

I’m not myself a fan of a foreign aid ‘budget’ as such. Instead, I believe that the UK should play its part in providing moral, humanitarian aid where possible on a sporadic and prioritised basis. By introducing a parameter in the form of a budget, some international disasters may not receive proportionate or adequate funding, and as has been shown over the last few days, over-spending is also inevitable.

Despite the Tory party’s target of setting aside 0.7% of our GDP for the purposes of global aid being a generous and fairly popular one, charity does often start at home, and over-spending should not be tolerated whilst Britain is gripped by intense industrial woes.

There is a fashionable line that argues that taking from the foreign aid budget is no way to cure domestic ills as it will only incur more suffering abroad. In some cases, this may well be true, but those fronting such an argument may like to consider that there is a huge wealth of difference between helping and appearing to help.

Much of the foreign aid budget is wasted on projects which do not provide direct relief to the intended recipients, and many governments shell out over-generously as a way of point scoring with ethnic minorities at home, or in a bid to bribe or sway certain international governments.

Britain spent £12.2 billion in foreign aid in 2015, and kind-hearted thought it may well seem, I think a far more moral approach would be to target crises individually and divert accidental over-spending towards problems happening at home.

2016 is the year that the UK’s steel industry urgently needs help, so let us hope that George Osborne does the right thing.