Privatisation: the gap between politicians and the rest of us

New analysis from We Own It shows just how big the gap has become between what the British public want for their public services and what Westminster wants.

Calum McGregor
2 December 2014


From Royal Mail to the NHS, privatisation of our public services is continuing apace. An outside observer might look upon these cynical sell offs and conclude that such a policy commands popular support. However, our new analysis has shown just how out of step Westminster politicians are with public opinion when it comes to who should be running our public services. This privatisation scorecard compares public opinion with party policy on a number of key indicators, including a commitment to a publicly-run and owned NHS, public ownership of our railways, and proper accountability for private companies that win public service contracts. The major parties are consistently found wanting. A huge gap has opened up between what the electorate wants—public services run for people, not profit—and what politicians are willing to offer. Privatisation has become the lazy default rather than a conscious choice, and represents the opposite of evidence-based policy making.

Since the 1980s we’ve seen more and more of the public sphere put up for sale, with money diverted from much-needed investment straight into the pockets of shareholders and executives. The public is increasingly questioning the logic behind a series of governments’ addictions to the mythical infallibility of market competition - and with good reason.

For example, 66% of the electorate support public ownership of our railways. This failed privatisation experiment has seen the cost of running the railways more than double, with average fares rising by 22% above inflation. Bringing the railways into public ownership could save £1.2 billion year, enough to fund an 18% cut in fares. In flagrant defiance of the public’s wishes, the government is forging ahead with the controversial re-privatisation of the East Coast mainline. A public ownership success story, East Coast has returned over a billion pounds to the public purse, and requires less public subsidy than any of the 15 privately run rail franchises. Despite this, the service has just been awarded to a joint bid from the tired old guard of the rail industry - Stagecoach and Virgin. Only the Green Party and Plaid Cymru are advocating public ownership of our railways as the default.

On energy and water, the polling shows the majority of the public want these vital national resources in public ownership. Just 32% of us trust the energy industry - not surprising given endless price rises and allegations of profiteering. Across the western world there is a growing ‘remunicipalisation’ movement - taking back energy and water services into local, public ownership. In Germany alone over 100 energy concessions have been brought back into public ownership since 2007, and in France major cities like Paris and Bordeaux have returned water into public hands, funding new investment and cuts to customers’ bills. Britain risks being left behind, tied to a worn-out belief that private is always best. Public ownership of water is already working in Scotland, showing just what can be achieved with the right political will. The British public is ahead of the political curve when it comes to these vital services and is rightly calling for them to be in public hands. Only the Greens and Plaid Cymru seem to be heeding these calls, with the other parties placing their faith in a broken system of corporate control.

The public also supports the right to be involved in the decisions that affect their public services. 79% want proper public consultation before a service is privatised, but none of the largest parties are willing to accept the public’s right to have a say. The only measure politicians seem to be starting to agree on (thanks to our campaigning work, and with the exception of the Conservatives) is our proposal of a right to recall private companies doing a bad job, supported by 88% of the public.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel: both Labour and Liberal Democrats support private companies running public services being subject to Freedom Of Information requests, and the Greens match or are ahead of public opinion on nearly all of the key indicators. But politicians on all sides need to do more to ensure they represent the views of the British people.

With the forthcoming general election expected to be the most difficult to call in recent memory, politicians vying for our support would do well to respond to these findings. Previous polling has shown that voters are more likely to vote for a party advocating public ownership instead of outsourcing and privatisation, by a ratio of 4:1. A radical alternative to market dogma could restore confidence in our political system, and stay the terminal decline in election turnouts. A quick trip north of the border shows how civic life can be reinvigorated by the chance to vote for a positive alternative.

Public ownership is often dismissed as a throwback to the 1970s, but that very idea is getting old - this is about moving forwards into a better future. In reality it represents a popular, pragmatic way in which we can improve the public services we use every day. That’s why we’re calling on all of our supporters to write to the major parties asking for a manifesto commitment to a Public Service Users Bill. The Bill would promote transparency and accountability, make sure a realistic in-house bid is entered for any public service contract, and ensure that services are run in the interests of people, not profit. It would also promote bids from social value organisations, such as cooperatives and community groups. It seems there are MPs that are proud to listen to the views of their constituents - already 76 have backed Early Day Motion 438 in favour of such a Bill, including MPs from Labour, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, SNP and the Green Party. It’s time the rest of Westminster started to reflect the views of the electorate.

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