Owen Jones: For Tories, privatisation is still a matter of dogmatic faith

The breadth of opposition to Royal Mail privatisation is hardly surprising. Britons have endured a three-decade-long experiment of selling off our utilities and public services

Share

Dogmatic in the face of all the evidence; backing fringe policies embraced by obscure minorities; pushing failed ideas which, if implemented, would be nothing short of disastrous. Here are accusations long thrown at the left by level-headed advocates of such moderate proposals as, say, illegally invading countries prompting hundreds of thousands of deaths, or introducing cuts Mrs Thatcher could only have dreamt of.

So how about this for an extreme, unpopular policy? According to YouGov, the proposed privatisation of the Royal Mail is opposed by over two-thirds of Britons; even Tory voters are more likely to be against than in support. Just 4 per cent strongly support the flogging off of yet another public service, which gives an indication of how few hardcore free-marketeers there are.

The breadth of opposition is hardly surprising. Britons have endured a three-decade-long experiment of selling off our utilities and public services. After a fair run, the cheerleaders of free market extremism must now accept that they have failed to win the support or consent of the British people. A poll in April found that 61 per cent believed major public services such as energy and water were best run by the public sector; only just over a quarter opted for private companies. Every poll going shows that we want the railways back in public ownership. That so few MPs echo these calls in Parliament is a damning indictment indeed of our political elite and the state of British democracy.

The public’s verdict is undoubtedly based on pragmatic experience. The taxpayer is paying around three times more subsidising private railways than when they were run by the state. Ticket prices soar above inflation, pricing out millions of families, and the service is fragmented and chaotic. Energy and water companies are ripping off consumers when workers’ pay packets are facing the biggest squeeze in modern times.

This latest bout of free market extremism comes after a torrid week for the dogma of “private sector good, public sector bad”. Security companies G4S and Serco have both been accused of overcharging the state for the electronic tagging of offenders, including billing government for people who had died or never even been tagged. During the Olympics, G4S failed to deliver enough security guards, leaving the state – who else? – to fill the vacuum. At the time, Tory Cabinet minister Philip Hammond admitted that the episode challenged his “prejudice that we have to look at the way private sector does things to know how we should do things in government”.

The list could go on. Take the likes of A4e, the welfare-to-work company: on top of being investigated for fraud, its former chief executive Emma Harrison stood down after paying herself a £8.6m share dividend at the expense of the state. There are the PFI schemes that exploded under New Labour, leaving the taxpayer saddled with billions of pounds worth of debt. And then, of course, there’s the small matter of the banks that collapsed. It wasn’t free market dogma that rescued them – it was the state.

The case against privatising our Royal Mail is overwhelming, even disregarding other failures. It is a profitable business, making £440m last year. It is a natural monopoly. The right-wing think-tank Bow Group suggests that rural Post Offices could close and the price of stamps could be hiked.

The truth is the free market extremism pushed by the biggest party in Britain – the neo-liberal centre of Blairites, Cameroon Tories and Orange Book Lib Dems – is riddled with hypocrisy. Modern capitalism depends on a big state, on government largesse. Bailed out banks; PFI contracts; tax credits that subsidise bosses paying low wages; housing benefit subsidising landlords because of the mass sell-off of council houses – the list goes on.

Many of the free market extremists have benefited directly from their dogma. Take Patricia Hewitt, who journeyed from left-wing firebrand to Blairite health secretary: she was recently appointed board director at Bupa, a health company that stands to benefit from the privatisation of the NHS. Lord Norman Warner, a “Labour” Lord who supports the Tories’ dismantling of the NHS, is a non-executive chairman of UK Health Gateway and an adviser to technology firm Xansa, all of which government plans have guaranteed a bright future. The revolving door of free-market extremists is profitable indeed.

Evidence that shatters the demonisation of the public sector is routinely ignored by our media and political elite. The Government is planning to reprivatise the East Coast mainline, despite the Office of Rail Regulation finding it to be the “most efficiently run franchise”. None of this means opponents of free market extremism should be defensive, allowing themselves to be painted as conservative opponents of “reform” (a term stolen and redefined as “privatising” and “cutting”). When the post-war Labour government nationalised key sectors of the economy, it created top-down, undemocratic public corporations. Without meaningfully involving users and workers, there was little resistance when Thatcher sold the family silver.

It’s time to argue for a new form of democratic, social ownership. Take the railways. They could easily be taken into public ownership if the political will was there: the state could simply take over each franchise as it expires. But instead of being run by bureaucrats in Whitehall, passengers and workers could be given the right to vote for representatives on the management board. The same argument could be made for, say, the banks, the NHS, or Royal Mail, forcing services to be more responsive to the needs of users, without selling them off to companies who are solely interested in making big bucks – not in delivering a quality service.

As the free market extremists once again ignore the will of the British people, it’s time to go on the offensive. Yet another disastrous sell-off doesn’t mean simply sticking to the status quo. Democracy, not privatisation: that should be our call.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting

£400 - £550 per day: Orgtel: Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting ...

Lead Application Developer

£80000 - £90000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am current...

Senior Networks Architect

£65000 per annum + 15% Pension, Health, Travel & Bonus: Progressive Recruitmen...

SAP BW/BO Consultant

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW/BO CONSU...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

How silly of me to assume it was Israeli bombs causing all the damage in Gaza

Mark Steel
 

Careful, Mr Cameron. Don't flirt with us on tax

Chris Blackhurst
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices