Public ownership is ridiculously popular. Why does no one campaign for it?

A new poll yet again shows the overwhelming popularity of public ownership of public services in the UK. Yet no major political parties reflects this position. Why not?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
15 October 2013
NHS protest.jpg

The NHS is just one institution facing unpopular privatisation

'If a political party announced a plan to end the privatisation / contracting out of public services by default, and take more public services into public ownership, would that make you more or less likely to vote for that party, or would it have no effect?'

That was the question asked by Survation on behalf of the new campaign group “We Own It” in a new poll, released last week. And by 4:1, the answer was that such a policy would make a voter more likely to vote for a party.

Specifically, 46% of voters would be more likely to vote for a party promoting public ownership instead of outsourcing and privatisation. Only 11% would be less likely to do so, whilst 43% said it wouldn't make a difference. Despite this, there is no major party in England with this policy. Significantly, I haven't seen any speculation in the media that Ed Miliband – supposedly Labour's most left wing leader in decades – is likely to adopt such a position, despite its popularity. I think that this shows us three important things about British politics.

The first is the extent to which the elite have been captured by the indoctrinating forces of neo-liberal capitalism. Politicians aren't entirely cynical. They do have beliefs. If Ed Miliband wanted only to appeal to the electorate, it probably would be in his interests to do what this poll indicates. But if he believes – despite overwhelming evidence – that privatisation is key to the future of Britain's success, there has to be a pretty compelling electoral reason for him to announce such a policy.

The second thing is that this is a reminder that there is, in England, no such electoral or political imperative. Other than the odd English seat where there is a challenge to Labour from the left, they essentially face no such threat – it's no coincidence that the biggest group of people who oppose privatisation already vote Labour. In most English seats, there is no candidate with a different position with a serious chance of beating them. The old triangulation logic still applies – lots of Labour voters might like Labour more if they had this position. But that doesn't help them. And a few Tory and Lib Dem voters might like them a bit more, but there's not huge evidence that this would be enough for them to switch these votes.

Of course, in Scotland and Wales, it's a different story. Both the SNP and Plaid oppose privatisation in general. And the result is significant divergence of policy with England – in Wales because Labour have tacked to the left to see of the threat from Plaid, and in Scotland because Labour, having failed to tack to the left, have been overtaken by the SNP. There's certainly a lesson in that for the English.

The third thing, though, is what this tells those of us who are on the left about the issues on which we should focus our attention. There is a dynamic in British politics which goes like this: the right thinks everyone agrees with them, and the left agrees. This leads to a sense among left activists that not much is winnable, or that the only way to make change is to win power by sounding right wing and hope voters don't notice the progressive things you do.

The truth is much more complex than that. On some issues, people tend to agree with positions traditionally thought of as right wing. For example, most think that benefits are too high. On other issues, people tend to side with the left.

And of all of the issues about which left leaning parties and activists might campaign, privatisation seems to me to be the clearest example of a rare phenomenon. There is potential for a major victory with the ability not just to win a specific policy change, but also a genuine change in the long term balance of power between the people and the powerful. Never again could energy company bosses threaten to bring the country to its knees because they didn't like what a politician said.

Yet, despite this being a major issue with mass public support, who is running this campaign? Whilst unions do some work sometimes – usually in the few seconds before another national treasure is auctioned off - there was until very recently, no real campaigning infrastructure or organisations set up to work on the issue. The lack of any long term political organiser paid only to defend the public realm is astonishing given that most illnesses have someone employed to advocate on behalf of their patients (even many which are relatively obscure).

Of course, that's not quite true any more. The poll was commissioned by the new campaign group We Own It. At the moment, this is a small group of hard working researchers and campaigners, mostly working for free in their spare time. Let's hope that this is the start of a beautiful movement.


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