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  • Published in Opinion
St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. Photo: Pxhere

St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. Photo: Pxhere

The showdown between public need and private greed will mean taking on the banks and the City from the get-go, argues Lindsey German

The determination of a future Labour government to bring privatised and outsourced industry back into public ownership is creating predictable outrage from those who support privatisation and outsourcing. Instead of infantile questioning in the media along the lines of ‘but if you borrow to nationalise and then interest rates go up you’ll have to pay more’, the only discussion should be how appallingly bad this decades-long experiment has been, and how best to change it.

Thames Water, the private company to which I and millions of others pay hundreds of pounds a year, has been pilloried and fined for lack of investment and for dumping sewage in the Thames. The lack of investment is surely part of what has led to a record number of serious water main bursts across London, costing millions more in terms of traffic delays and inconvenience. The railways are the most expensive in Europe, and deliver one of the worst services. You can repeat the story across the board, from BT to privatised academy schools.

Shareholders never lose out, so it appears, CEOs and top managers are rewarded beyond their wildest dreams, while the people suffering are the customers of these services, and the workers, who have seen downward pressure on their wages and conditions from the private companies.

The companies can only succeed through high levels of state investment and subsidy, as the examples of the railways and Carillion show. Britain has become a model of public finance smoothing the way for private profit.

So it is well past time for Labour to be mapping out paths to re-nationalisation, at least of the main utilities. The conference at the weekend was right to also reject a return to the old post Second World War nationalisations. These were a huge advance on the private ownership which had gone before. But they were seen as centralised investment vehicles, in a sense continuing from the war economy which had effectively nationalised the mines and railways, rather than giving either workers or consumers real control over them. 

However, it seems to me it will take much more than the co-operative model to really wrest control away from big capital and genuinely allow for democratic control. The problem with co-operatives is that they exist within the larger capitalist system and therefore are forced to compete within them. They are also subject to the vagaries of economic crisis, interest rate levels and the whim of financial capital in particular. Unless, as Michael Roberts has argued, Labour also demands nationalisation of the banks and financial services, then it is hard to see how any of this would be brought under control, and how a democratically elected government would be able to stop capital from sabotaging its plans.

Some of the people involved in developing these ideas about new forms of public ownership were involved with the old Greater London Council, including, of course, John McDonnell. The GLC developed lots of ideas for progressive new economic policies and industrial strategies. In the end, however, they were unable to come to fruition – indeed Thatcher destroyed the GLC rather than see it succeed. We know that Labour will come up against even bigger enemies if it comes to office – and that means controlling the banks and much more of private capital right from the start. 

I don’t want to wait in vain for your vote

Speaking of ‘if Labour comes to office’ – there’s a lot of talk about Labour doing poorly in the polls, at least relatively speaking. There is even one showing them behind the Tories. The question is why, when this government is so obviously so dreadful, that it doesn’t even believe in itself? There obviously isn’t one simple answer. There is, in part, a return to the two-party system, where smaller parties get squeezed, but where neither is going to go much higher than the mid-40s. There is Brexit, which may be holding up the Tory vote, and which certainly may complicate people’s traditional voting patterns.

But there is also the danger that Labour’s ‘government in waiting’ strategy means that it maintains but doesn’t extend its lead. Labour did well in June because it was bold and daring, because it put forward a popular and left manifesto and because Jeremy Corbyn dared to deal with difficult questions like terrorism and racism. That opened up a debate and polarised issues, challenged the media dominated status quo, and inspired those who agreed with Corbyn to get out and organise.

That needs to be happening again. There is no room for triumphalism (which we saw a bit too much of at Labour’s September conference) or complacency. The space for the left is never going to be mainly in the world of the great and the good, in television studios or the parliamentary chambers, but in mobilising those who have most of a stake in change. That means campaigning, supporting strikes, going on demonstrations. It is that which will intensify the contradictions facing May and her government, and will build Labour support.  

The endless drive to war only creates more… war 

The war in Syria is far from going away. The direct aerial confrontation between Israel and Iran in the Syrian skies speaks to the danger of a direct conflict involving not just the present protagonists within Syria, but one which spreads further geographically. It would not need too many further conflicts to begin to join up the dots across the different countries of the Middle East in a new war, which would see the US and UK pitted against Iran and behind Israel, with Russia on the other side.

Those who wish for further intervention to stop Assad, or Russia, or Iran, really need to get a grip on what this would mean. We have two actual examples of direct intervention in the region. The first was Iraq in 2003, the second Libya in 2011. Both were unqualified disasters. The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, despairing at such lack of intervention in Syria, asks whether the war could have got any worse with US intervention? Well yes, it could. Look at Iraq. With at least half a million dead and millions displaced, with its infrastructure destroyed and the country prey to groups like ISIS, with the country riven by a sectarianism which all respectable accounts say was far from the surface before 2003, it is a monument to the folly of intervention.

It is fortunate that so many people in the US and Britain reject their government's priorities, and demand an end to such interventions. Tisdall again complains that ‘Activists and protest groups such as the Stop the War Coalition tend to focus on easier, often American targets, such as Trump.’ Tisdall and his co-thinkers never seem to ask why it might be that America is an ‘easier target’ – could it be because of the record of its past and present wars? 

Women who inspired a movement 

I caught a wonderful documentary on BBC4 last week about the movement of the Hull trawler women in 1968. This was led by the inspiring Lil Bilocca, the wife and mother of a trawlerman, and arose dramatically after three Hull trawlers sank in terrible conditions off Iceland and Norway in January and February 1968, with the loss of all but one men. These women mobilised against the trawler owners, demanding no boat should leave port without a radio and other safety precautions. Lil is shown trying to jump onto a boat which is leaving without these.

Despite the patronising attitude of the employers, the women persisted and a delegation went to Westminster to meet Labour government representatives. They won their demands. Lil Bilocca was an inspiration to the early women’s movement in this country – as were the Dagenham women who struck over regrading in 1968 and who helped trigger the Equal Pay Act. The Hull trawler women are often forgotten now, as is May Hobbs, who organised the London night cleaners a year or two later, but they were all working-class women who demanded change and took up the most militant action to get it.

There will be much talk about ‘middle class’ movements in the commemoration of 1968 this year. But we should remember that working-class women were at the forefront of fighting for equality in this country. The current statistics about the gender pay gap and the claims of shop workers in Tesco’s for equal pay show how far we have to go. And show how to win we will have to rely on our own organisation and mass campaigning, not on the sorts of women who praise the suffragettes but do nothing for women today.

Lindsey German

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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