Over the weekend we heard more about the Labour Party’s plans to bring key services back into the public sector, including the railways and utilities such as the water and energy markets. Speaking at Labour’s “alternative models of ownership” conference, Corbyn and McDonnell ramped up their party’s rhetoric on the issue, saying that a future Labour Government would be part of a global “wave of change” and that the public ownership of the energy companies in particular was needed in order to avoid a “climate catastrophe”.
Whilst there was nothing particularly new in what Corbyn and McDonnell said over the weekend, this is further evidence of Labour’s desire to go strong on an area that polls suggest is overwhelmingly popular with the general public. The policy is quite clearly anathema to most Conservatives and the business community, but is it all quite as radical as it sounds?
Certainly, a programme of nationalisation would reverse 35 years of public policy which has generally favoured deregulation and competitive markets over public ownership. But for the new generation who have no living memory of the nationalisation of the 1970s and early 80s, they can hardly be blamed for looking elsewhere for radical policy solutions when the current system is seen by them to be failing in so many ways.
Despite what they say in public, even some Conservatives accept that there is a case for rail privatisation where the infrastructure is already publicly owned and the services so highly subsidised by the taxpayer. Indeed it is not much of a competitive market when the only competition that exists is at the point at which the franchise is tendered. In other economies, the publicly owned delivery of services is much more common than it is in the UK.
Now that they are increasingly seen as a serious and credible alternative Government, it is important that the public affairs industry consider seriously the implications of a Corbyn-led Labour Government and the impact that a policy agenda including widespread nationalisation would have on businesses currently involved in public service delivery.
There is no doubt that Labour could make its case better, with comments from John McDonnell saying that Labour’s nationalisation policy would be “cost free” likely to stretch the party’s credibility with voters. But for the Conservatives it really is time to go back to the drawing board and make the case for the private sector – something which they have taken for granted for decades. If they don’t, they risk letting in a Labour Government by the backdoor and entrenching a system of nationalised utilities and services which, like the privatisation reforms of the 1980s and 90s, might take several decades to reverse.