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Modernise: de-privatise - new OurKingdom series

Today we launch our new series on democracy and the economy: modernise, de-privatise.

 

If such a thing is possible, there are two consensuses on privatisation. The first is the overwhelming agreement amongst almost all of the political class that it is inevitable and a thoroughly good idea. The second is among the public, who, more than almost any other issue than perhaps approval for motherhood and enjoyment of apple pie, are near unanimous in despising it. The truth is we simply can't afford privatisation any more - the prices it produces are far too high. Look at your water bill, your gas bill, your rail ticket (if you can afford one). Last year, the City shrieked in terror that the majority of the public have turned their back on privatisation - we want our assets back.

Not by coincidence, it seems that the public are more in touch with their lived reality than their rulers. There is now a significant body of evidence to suggest the privatisation project has failed to improve services. To paraphrase Mr Keynes, the nastiest motives of the nastiest men do not somehow work out to produce the best social results. If privatisation was ever really intended to improve the lives of ordinary people in Britain rather than just to enrich the already rich, it has failed on a grand scale.

Much of what we write here on OurKingdom bears witness to that failure. OurNHS challenges it specifically in the context of healthcare. Clare Sambrook's project, “Shine a Light”, has exposed the behaviour of G4S and other for-profit companies. But showing that a system doesn't work is not sufficient. It is also vital to demonstrate that there is an alternative.

In some cases, of course, the other option is obvious. To everyone but the most ardent libertarians and anarchists, there is some sort of role for the state. It is pretty clear, for example, that the government owned NHS operated very effectively. Read the evaluations of the NHS from overseas medical clinicians, international institutions and public health academics, rather than the smears of the right wing press and think tanks in Britain, and you'll understand why.

In other cases, though, what we ought to replace private control with is less clear. We might easily be able to agree that we want more democratic ownership, but what that adds up to is not always simple. State control certainly isn't always the answer and, because of the risk of alienating bureaucracy, perhaps it shouldn't even be the default.

Public ownership is as broad an umbrella as private ownership. Just as your local cafe can be the property of your next door neighbour or a multinational corporation, a private company or a firm listed on the stock exchange, so too democratical control comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Alongside numerous ways in which the national government can run a service are municipal ownership, mutuals, worker co-ops, member co-ops, not-for-profit community groups and all manner of combinations of all of these.

As such, showing that privatisation has failed is necessary but not sufficient. We also need to say what we would replace it with, and the answer shouldnt always be the same. There are intrinsic differences, both moral and practical, between the organisation which brings you smoothies and that which brings you water.

This all tells us two things. The first is that the future must be taken into democratic control. The second is that a one-size-fits-all cry for "renationalisation!" isn't enough; we can do better and we must do better. Democracy is complex and fluid and messy. It requires us to ask who is effected by every sort of decision and so who should get a say. It demands that we experiment with different structures to see what works. It means that we need to start to trust each other.

When building the democratic structures of the future, though, Britain is at a perverse advantage. With one of the most privatised economies in the Western world, we have the successes and failures of our neighbours to learn from. We have ideas from across the planet and the history of humanity to draw upon. That is one of the things this series seeks to discuss. We want to look at how other countries have taken a whole range of different parts of their economy into different types of public or democratic ownership and discuss where this has worked—and where it hasn't—and which models are successful, which require some tweaking. If an economy can be rapidly privatised, it can be de-privatised; we want to understand how, and we want the public to understand how.

We must also engage seriously with our own past. It is easy on the one hand to look to the post-war consensus of nationalisation as a golden age. On the other, it is too simple to dismiss it as a failure. A fair assessment must look at where nationalisation worked and why and where it failed, and also at why it was politically possible to dismantle so much of it.

Finally, when looking to the future, we need to be willing to imagine things which have never been tried before. We need to give ideas a place to sprout before they blossom or are chopped down. Again, we hope to provide a forum to do just that – to encourage discussion of the practical questions of de-privatisation.

Few matters could be more important than these. After all, before any other question can be asked, we need to determine who has the power to choose the answer. Before we can solve our economic problems, we need to know who owns the economy. Not long ago, a large chunk of the British economy belonged to its people. We now own next to nothing. Even the Royal Mail has now been sold, at a shamefully low price, and making a killing for the Chancellor's best man in the process - this is the reality of privatisation.

It is time to design a new economic democracy for the future. It is time to inspect each part of our economy and to ask how it can be accountable and how those impacted by it can decide what happens with it. This is what we aim to do with this series. We will need your help. We will need you to submit articles and suggest ideas and to challenge ours. Because ultimately, that's what democracy is about.

 

Adam Ramsay & Oliver Huitson, co-editors, OurKingdom

LocalismWatch iconThis article is part of the Modernise: de-privatise series.

About the author

OurKingdom is the British section of openDemocracy. 

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