I’m a bit of a fan of the old Clause Four of Labour’s constitution drafted by Sidney Webb in 1918. I love that line about securing “for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry”. Pure poetry.
And the idea of getting “equitable distribution … upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange,” is a good one. I believe, too, that each industry or service should have “the best obtainable system of popular administration and control”.
Note that there was no mention of nationalisation in Clause Four. But nationalisation was what we got from the great reforming Attlee government. Tools developed in wartime were used to carry out the massive reconstruction and social transformation which inspires modern Labour.
By the mid 50s, however, there were concerns about how these ‘vast, bureaucratic public corporations” operated. In 1955 the academic and future Cabinet minister Richard Crossman said “failed two key test for socialism, “a state-owned industry should be fully responsible to Parliament and give a share of management to its workers.”
Tony Benn was more pithy in his 1980 book . After five years as Energy and Industry secretary he observed ‘nationalisation plus Lord Robens [the moderate erstwhile chairman of the NCB] does not add up to socialism’.
Nationalisation became a dirty word and the Thatcher/Major privatisations of the 80s and 90s were left largely untouched by Blair and Brown.
But fast forward to 2017 and not only are Tony Benn’s apostles Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell proposing to take privatised industries back into public ownership but the policies are popular.
According to a Populus poll, for the Legatum Institute, a majority of voters hold a more favourable view of ‘socialism’ than ‘capitalism’ and more than 75% of voters want to water, electricity, gas and railway (76%) in public hands. Majorities also favour wage caps for CEOs and worker representation at and board level, stricter regulation and the abolition of zero hour contracts.
The Tories are worried. Chancellor Philip Hammond told business people who turned up for £400-a-head dinner at the Tory conference in Manchester. “You have to decide to combat this menace or collaborate with it and let it get into power.”
It’s a problem of the Tories own making, says the Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty, because “modern-day Conservative leaders aren’t much cop at capitalism.”
He says voters are not being ideological but entirely pragmatic in rejecting the Tories and a form of capitalism offered to them – “one that cannot provide them with wage rises, secure homes or decent care for their loved ones.
The Conservatives have ended up defending capital rather than capitalism. They have championed finance and pretended it stands for all business.”
He says Labour’s election manifesto proposed a bigger public sector, higher taxes and a promise to borrow more to invest. “That is capitalism, of a kind that Angela Merkel would know.”
My hunch is that despite its apparent popularity the re-nationalisation will be a relatively small of the Corbyn and McDonnell’s economic strategy.
An interesting analysis in the Financial Times shows how ‘light touch’ regulation has made some utility deals extremely lucrative for foreign investors . It says “Lax regulation has turned Britain into a rentier’s paradise”, because in setting tariffs regulators have become “over influenced by the demand of utilities and City investors to provide generous financial terms … rather than securing efficient services and value for money for consumers.”
Re-nationalisation and stricter regulation are not mutually exclusive but it’s the regulation that is more likely to be effective in stopping these industries ripping off customers.