Public support for nationalisation increased while Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader, poll finds

Study finds that ‘political consensus’ has emerged on public ownership

Jon Stone
Monday 16 December 2019 13:37 GMT
Labour 'could nationalise railways in five years', John McDonnell claims

Support for nationalisation and public ownership increased across the board during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader, polling has found.

The public is now even more likely to want the railways, water companies, buses, energy companies, Royal Mail and the health service to be run in the public sector than they were at the last election – to the extent that there is now a “political consensus” among voters.

The findings, from a study by the pollster YouGov, come amid a debate in Labour about the political direction the party should take when it chooses its new leader.

Mr Corbyn claimed over the weekend his party had in some areas “won the arguments and rewritten the terms of political debate” but said he took responsibility for last week’s heavy defeat, which saw the party lose swathes of seats in mostly Leave-voting areas.

When YouGov asked voters in May 2017 whether they supported various different types of public ownership, they found large majorities in favour of most proposals across practically all demographics. Asking the same questions again on election day last week, the pollsters found that support had increased in almost all cases following Labour campaigning on the issue.

Voters last week were six percentage points more likely to support railway nationalisation than they were at the 2017 election, with 64 per cent in favour and just 23 per cent opposed. Support for water companies’ renationalisation also increased by the same amount, with 63 per cent now in favour and 23 per cent opposed.

Support for the continued privatisation of Royal Mail, meanwhile, has tanked by seven percentage points, with 69 per cent now wanting public ownership and just 18 supporting continued privatisation. The public is also now nine points more supportive of the public ownership of bus companies, with 55 in favour and 31 per cent against.

One of the few areas in which voters may have become slightly more open to privatisation was the BBC, with those saying the broadcaster should be run in the public sector falling from 58 to 57 per cent, within the margin of error. The number supporting its privatisation remained flat at 25 per cent. Voters are also 3 per cent less likely to support the nationalisation of banks than before, though this has not been proposed by any party.

For progressives, how individually popular policies cohere into a compelling, credible story and vision of renewal is an existential challenge

Mathew Lawrence, Common Wealth think-tank

Interestingly, voters in 2017 were solidly opposed to a bundled question about nationalising “telephone and internet providers”, by 30 per cent to 53 per cent. But following Labour’s focus on broadband during the election campaign, the gap has narrowed by nine points, with 34 per cent supportive and 48 opposed. Stand-alone polling conducted during the campaign suggested that voters were in favour of Labour’s more limited proposal of nationalising Openreach, the infrastructure provider.

Far from being a holdover from the 1970s, support for public ownership was higher in most cases among the young – though older people were also supportive. For example, 72 per cent of 18-24-year-olds want railways nationalised, and just 12 per cent are opposed – compared with 56 per cent of voters over 65 being supportive and 32 per cent opposed.

While Labour supporters were the most strongly in favour of public ownership, it did have some support across the board: for example, 48 per cent of Tory voters supported rail nationalisation, compared with 41 opposed.

There was no discernible regional or class trend in support for public ownership, though when compared by gender, men were more likely to be supportive, mostly by virtue of being less likely to say they didn’t know.

Separate polling conducted by Opinium found that Jeremy Corbyn’s personal unpopularity and the party’s Brexit position were by far the biggest contributors to it losing so many voters, with Labour’s economic policies only cited by 6 per cent of defectors. Some 37 per cent cited Mr Corbyn’s leadership and 21 per cent its Brexit position.

Miatta Fahnbulleh, the chief executive of the New Economics Foundation think tank, said: “There is a now political consensus that the economy doesn’t work for everyone and needs radical reform. And there is clear support amongst the public for a different set of solutions from public ownership to higher public spending.

“We can’t solve the economic and environmental crisis we face by doing more of the same. We need a new economic model. This election showed that this new consensus doesn’t just require the right policies, it requires a new story to be told in a compelling way to ensure if the public support for transformative policies is to be translated in the ballot box.”

Mathew Lawrence, the director of the Common Wealth think tank, said: “This election has answered one vital question: whether we will leave the EU. Now the challenge for the new government is meeting the demand for transformative change with a policy agenda that matches the scale of the economic and climate crisis. For progressives, how individually popular policies cohere into a compelling, credible story and vision of renewal is an existential challenge.”

YouGov polled 1,650 British adults from 11 to 12 December; the polling was Commissioned by Neon. The figures were compared with YouGov polling conducted on 17-18 May 2017.

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