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POLITICS, like life, can go through cycles. A few short years ago if you said you believed in Public Ownership you would more than likely been dismissed as some sort of fossil. But slowly the tide has been turning with more and more in favour of it. It's an idea who's time has come again.
How did we get to where we are now? To understand we have to look at what's happened since the privatisations the Conservatives carried out in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We were told then that our services would improve and be more efficient, that private money would invest in modernisation and that bills would go down over time. It would be a win-win situation, we were told.
Well this hasn't happened. Bills have gone up in real terms, no service has improved and nowhere near enough private money has gone into any of the services. What we have now is public money still being pumped into different services but without any of the benefits that publicly owned services would bring.
I don't believe there was ever that much enthusiasm for privatisation from the general public but neither was there much for how the utilities had been run as state run industries either. What has slowly dawned on people is that they have been sold a lie and have been well and truly ripped off.
For example, water bills have increased 40 per cent since privatisation and our private energy companies overcharged customers by £2 billion in 2015.
The average price of a train journey has gone up 23.5 per cent in real terms since privatisation. We have been given higher prices but poorer quality services.
All the different regulatory bodies don't have enough power and don't hold the different private companies to account enough. Indeed this is one of the major problems with privatisation – its lack of accountability to the public. Let's make no mistake who private companies are accountable to first and foremost, it is their shareholders.
That means making a big dividends for them. Everything else is secondary to that. Always. And the important distinction to remember from other parts of the private sector is that these are all public services. They are providing services for everyone but we, the public, have very little democratic control over them.
All the power is in the hands of the faceless people who run these unaccountable monoliths.
What options the public has varies from service to service, showing what a pig’s ear the Tories made of it, even on their own terms.
There is still no choice in water services, little discernable choice with rail. This was always one of the Tories’ mantras: more choice – but it's only energy where you can can actually choose providers. But we are still being ripped off. Big time. Public services are natural monopolies but when they become private monopolies we don't have any consumer power; as in the case of water and rail, we can't go anywhere else.
Privatisation was a key policy of the Conservative neoliberal agenda, not just in Britain but around the world. For the public it's been a massive failure but for the fat cats it's been a success – because they have literally had the cream.
Their profits go up, as bills and fares keep rising in real terms, and it when their companies fail – like Carrillion, Serco, Capita, G4S and so on – the government will step in to save them anyway! It is an incredible scam: provide the service and get paid a huge amount, fail to provide the service and the state will step in to help – and you will still get paid a huge amount.
To me the whole question of public ownership asks some very big questions about how we want to run our society and in turn the economy. At the moment only a narrow elite run our services.
What we need are public services which are run for the benefit of everyone. At the heart of it is a fundamental conflict of interest because the private companies make their profits from cutting corners, cutting wages and underinvesting. It's these elites who are at present getting a cash cow from us. They charge more and can get away with a lot because they are accountable only to their shareholders.
The good news is it doesn't have to be like this. Public ownership can help rebalance the economy and put people before profit. Of course these big companies won't want to lose what they have got and will try to put a spanner in the works. Privatisation has helped to make our society more unequal and more unfair. For years it's been said that nothing could be done to change anything, that it would all cost too much money. But there are always options.
Rail is relatively simple: as each franchise ends we simply take it back into public ownership. This will take time but it's an efficient and effective way to do it.
Energy is different and more complicated. The national grid is a private company which we need to buy back along with the energy distribution networks, which would pay for itself in 10 years. With this we need to encourage local authorities to set up energy supply companies such as Robin Hood Energy and Bristol Energy. We also need to encourage more co-operatives to start who along with local authorities would be a good alternative to the Big Six energy companies. The would only be a start but a very important one.
Water is already publicly owned in Scotland, Northern Ireland and run as a not-for-profit in Wales. Why was England done so differently? We could simply buy back the water companies and pay them minimum compensation. Again over time it would pay for itself. Polls show it is water that people would most like to see back in public ownership.
There are other things like the postal service and the buses that should be taken into public ownership too of course, but rail, energy, and water are the most vital to begin with. It is a clear statement of intent to begin the process of rebalancing the economy away from neoliberal casino capitalism: as John McDonnell said, we're taking them back!
Rick Evans is a Labour Party activist.
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