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After nearly 40 years of privatisation, we need public ownership for the 21st century

A new report outlines how we can take back our services and utilities for the public good. CHRIS JARVIS explains

FOR nearly 40 years, the ideology of privatisation has been central to British politics. When Margaret Thatcher came to power, she set about flogging off publicly owned assets and hollowing out the state.

She sold off British Gas in 1986. Then it was water’s turn in 1989. Her successor, John Major, took an axe to the railways and sold them off too.

Thatcher’s legacy outlived the Tory government though. She once described Tony Blair as her greatest achievement. And it’s not hard to see why.

Throughout his term in office, he started the widespread privatisation of education through the academies project, as well as ramping up use of the disastrous PFI deals in healthcare and education.

And by the time the Tories wheedled their way back into power, they took things still further. 

Even Thatcher didn’t want to go as far as privatising the “Queen’s head,” but George Osborne — aided and abetted by Vince Cable — went ahead and sold off the Royal Mail. 

The coalition’s obsession with privatisation saw Andrew Lansley carve up the NHS and Cable — at it again — privatise the Student Loan Book.

This has brought decades of devastation to our public services. Thatcher’s dream has become our nightmare.

Energy companies raking in hundreds of millions in profits every year while failing to invest in a green energy transition. 

Shareholders of water companies taking £18 billion in dividends over a decade while allowing three billion litres of water to leak down the drain. 

Richard Branson counting his mountains of money, while our rail network is plagued by delays, cancellations and overcrowded trains.

The list goes on and on. And all of this has continued while the cost of catching a train, turning on the heating or pouring a glass of water has gone up and up.

But thankfully, the tide is turning on this insidious project. Thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, trade unions, campaigners and the Greens, the public image of privatisation has never been so bad.

Opinion polls consistently show just how popular public ownership of services is. Well over half of people in the UK want to see the Royal Mail, social care, prisons and parks in public hands. 

More than three-quarters of the public want publicly owned schools, energy, healthcare and water.

The question therefore is no longer if we take our services into public ownership, but when. And when we do, we need to make sure that they’re so wildly successful that no government can ever privatise them again.

Today, We Own It launched a report on how we do just that. When We Own It: A Model for Public Ownership for the 21st Century sets out a blueprint for building publicly owned services to stand the test of time, and to meet the challenges of today.

We all know that privatisation has failed — even on its own terms. But we shouldn’t get starry-eyed about what public ownership looked like before Thatcher came along and butchered it either. 

It was far better than the system we have now, where private companies suck money out of the system. But it also suffered from politically motivated underfunding and a lack of real worker and public control.

We’ve seen how easy it’s been for right-wing governments to come in and sweep away public services — whether it be through austerity or privatisation. 

It’s how Thatcher was able to close the coalmines and crush the miners. And it’s how government ministers — blue, yellow and red — have been able to flog off our services.

So this time we have to do things differently.

Our report argues that for public ownership to be fit for the 21st century it needs to deliver on all these fronts. 

We propose when we take our services into public ownership they need to have proper checks and balances to ensure they’re successful at delivering for the public, but also to prevent them being privatised in the future.

That means creating structures where representatives of the public, trade unions and civil society organisations have as much say in overseeing the top level of publicly owned services as the government of the day does. 

It means creating a mechanism through which the public can be as embedded into the budgeting and decision-making processes as is feasibly possible. 

And it means ensuring there are safeguards built into publicly owned bodies to ensure they can’t be privatised if we’re unlucky enough to be governed again by Thatcherite ideologues.  

But as well as this, we need to ensure that our services are meeting the challenges of the 21st century. 

Time is quickly running out to respond effectively to climate breakdown. No matter how many quick-fix solutions Michael Gove comes up with to try and detoxify the Tory Party, we need systemic changes to tackle the environmental crisis. 

Banning plastic straws might be a good first step, but it isn’t anywhere near enough.

Naturally, public services have a vital role to play in that — and privatisation is failing on the climate front.

We need to build effective and efficient public transport networks that are the greenest and cheapest option to take cars off the road and short haul planes out of the sky. 

We need a water system which isn’t so riddled with leaks that it sends gallons gushing down the drain, rather than to people’s homes. 

And we need a rapid — and just — transition to renewable energy to keep the lights on, keep our homes warm and keep people in work.

Private companies looking to make a quick buck for shareholders are fiddling while the planet burns. Only publicly owned services can deliver the investment, care and public duty climate change demands.

It’s long been clear that Thatcher’s drive to cut, privatise and fragment our services has been a disaster for the public and for workers. 

Now it’s clear that if we don’t stop it, it’ll be a disaster for the planet too.

Let’s put an end to 40 years of ideology. Let’s bring our services into public ownership. And let’s make sure that this time, they can’t be undone.

 Chris Jarvis is press and communications Officer at We Own It.


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