The Popularity of Public Ownership

There’s a great article on Open Democracy discussing the politics of public ownership. I couldn’t agree more emphatically with the analysis and that’s why I’m giving as much of my time as I can to We Own It despite being chronically overworked at present.

‘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.

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.

There’s been a pervasive tendency to confuse what was basically a function of 80s+90s electoral politics with some intrinsic characteristic of ‘public ownership’ as a concept. What was initially a fairly reasonable psephological analysis of Labour’s national position coupled with an overly cautious media strategy became something profoundly ideological over time. We need to rescue the concept of public ownership from the internal politics of the Labour party.

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