If ‘typical Labour left policies’ had ever (bizarrely) turned up on ITV’s Family Fortunes, I’d place a pretty safe bet that ‘nationalisation’ would top the poll. But there is something deeply ironic about this, because nationalisation – as conceived and implemented by post-war Labour governments – had very little to do with the Labour left.
It was Peter Mandelson’s granddad and that icon of the Labour Right, Herbert Morrison, who was the architect of Labour’s model of public ownership. The new industries were top-down, bureaucratic public corporations. Many workers felt as alienated from their new employers as they did when they were under private ownership. This wasn’t socialism: it was state capitalism.
Neither did it help that, with the exception of steel and road haulage, all of the industries taken over were running at a loss, or in some cases practically bankrupt.
When Thatcherism sold the family silver (as former Tory PM Harold Macmillan famously put it), the Labour left retreated into purely defensive postures. When calls have been made to bring the railways back into public ownership, for example, the intention has generally been to bring British Rail back from the dead.
But it’s easy to forget that, in the 1970s, the Labour left had developed detailed critiques of Morrisonian nationalisation. As Tony Benn put it in the early 1970s: “Nationalisation does not, of itself, shift the balance of power in society, democratise industry, nor entrench new values in work which will automatically enrich the lives of those in nationalised concerns.”
Many of these nationalised industries were, undoubtedly, unresponsive to the needs of consumers. I’ve heard plenty of anecdotes complaining about how long it took a BT engineer to fix your phone in the 1970s. As for the workers: well, let’s not forget that Thatcherism trashed the mining industry when it was under public ownership in the form of the National Coal Board.
Nationalisation was scrubbed from the country’s political vocabulary in the 1980s. But, in the aftermath of the near-collapse of the global financial sector, it unexpectedly returned for a comeback tour. Huge chunks of the world’s banking industry were snapped up by the state. In the heartland of free-market capitalism, Comrade George Bush undertook the biggest de facto nationalisations in world history.
Of course, it’s all proven to be a missed opportunity. Western governments intervened in ways that ideologically disgusted them because they had no other options. Commentators chuckled about Labour realising its 1983 Manifesto and taking over the banks. In reality, although the Government had controlling stakes, it refused to exercise any real power. There were no Government delegates sitting in boardrooms and dictating the banks’ policies.
I think there’s a real opportunity to put alternatives to the market back on the agenda. That doesn’t mean a rewind to top-down nationalisation. There’s another alternative: democratic, social ownership (for want of a catchier name).
Consider a proposal from the RMT union for publicly run railways fit for the 21st century, written for left-wing economic think-tank the Left Economics Advisory Panel. The industry would be run by a board: a third of which would be elected by workers, and a third by passengers. The remaining third would be reserved for Government representatives.
Such a board would be forced to work together to find common solutions that would benefit those who worked on and used the railways, as well as keeping in mind the long-term interests of society as a whole. Issues like safety and rail prices would no longer be looked at through a prism of maximising profits.
You could apply the same principle to other industries: like gas or water. In both cases, the neo-liberal argument that competition would benefit the consumer lies in tatters. In all socially owned industries would be forced to defend the interests of consumers if they had representatives sitting at the table.
It’s an argument in favour of democracy, too. There is nothing democratic about free-market capitalism. We are ruled by economic despots who wield huge power over our lives, and yet they are in no way accountable to us.
The economic crisis has provoked a real questioning of neo-liberal assumptions, particular of the idea that the market should be allowed to rip. It’s time the Labour leadership started tapping into this yearning for an alternative – and started talking about social ownership. And I’m sure the spin doctors could think of a far catchier name.