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Editorial: Tata and Thames Water: corporate blackmail on the eve of the election

WHO governs Britain? When Edward Heath asked the question at the 1974 election, his claim was that organised labour (in the form of the National Union of Mineworkers) held the country to ransom.

People saw through the lie, he lost his election and they won their strike. Today we can see it is the power of capital, not labour, that holds us to ransom.

Tata Steel’s threat to shut the blast furnaces at Port Talbot three months earlier if Unite goes ahead with strike action is blackmail. The India-based multinational does not believe steelworkers should have a say in the plant’s future.

Indeed, since the beginning it has made clear it doesn’t think the Welsh or British governments should have a say either. Unions have secured pledges of serious investment from Labour, which all polls suggest will be in government in less than a week. Yet Tata will not even pause its destructive course until then. It’s outrageous that the future of British steelmaking should be at the whim of a billionaire on a different continent.

More corporate blackmail is issued in the business plan Thames Water has presented to our so-called regulator, Ofwat. The monopoly wants to increase bills for the 16 million households in its grip by a staggering 59 per cent.

With bland chutzpah it explains that its dilapidated infrastructure poses “a risk to public safety, water supply and the environment,” citing crumbling pipes, inadequate reservoirs and consequences including flooding threats to tens of thousands of homes and contaminated drinking water. It needs to charge us more to fix these problems, it pleads.

It will not escape the long-suffering public that all these issues are the result of corporate mismanagement since privatisation. Like the other water companies, Thames Water has been loaded with debt while neglecting maintenance, refusing to invest and paying billions out in shareholder dividends (it claims to have stopped issuing dividends to “external” shareholders since 2017, but has continued to make dividend payouts to parent companies).

Ofwat will pronounce on Thames Water’s bid to bill us to clean up a mess of its making on July 11, one week after the general election. Tata says it will close the Port Talbot blast furnaces on July 7, three days after the vote and one ahead of the start of Unite’s planned indefinite strike action.

There will be no summer honeymoon for an incoming Labour government. Keir Starmer has done his best to avoid the big issues throughout the campaign but they are forcing their way to the top. 

Labour needs to be made to answer now what it is going to do about Tata Steel and Thames Water — let the reckless, socially irresponsible profiteers screw the country over, or stop them? Leave the fate of sectors whose health is essential to the whole country in corporate boardrooms, or assert public control?

Water and steel are not the only storms that will rock the PM’s boat in the days following the election. Junior doctors are on strike again, and blunt in warning Labour that if it echoes Tory lies about the affordability of their pay claims then industrial action will continue. National Education Union leader Daniel Kebede similarly told the Morning Star this week that teachers expect pay talks to start straight away — and are ready to ballot for strikes if that doesn’t happen.

Thames Water’s collapse and public-sector pay disputes by workers who expect Labour to govern differently from the Tories were two crises identified by Starmer’s chief of staff Sue Gray as likely to descend on an incoming government immediately; a third was the accelerating run of local authority bankruptcies. 

Labour may not have solutions to any of them — but our movement does. The incoming government must face a wave of industrial struggle and resistance if these crises are to be resolved in the public’s interest.

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