Be under no illusion: the party would seek to implement its radical plans for public ownership. But that doesn’t mean they will workby Giles Wilkes / November 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
Labour’s plan to take BT Openreach into public ownership and provide free broadband for all is the policy bombshell of the election campaign so far. The sharp initial fall of BT’s share price brings to mind that day in September 2013 when Ed Miliband unveiled his energy price freeze and the shares of Centrica (the owner of British Gas) took a bath.
It is rare for an opposition policy to set the pace like this, and on the surface surprising. Miliband at least enjoyed a lead in the polls and was in 2013 a fair bet to win an outright majority in parliament. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has barely ever been in that position, and for most of his time as opposition leader his industrial approach has been a matter of curiosity at best.
Indeed, it was not long ago that you could dismiss the Labour urge to nationalise things as just that: an unthinking urge motivated by little more than a problem with the word “profit.” Nationalisation was the policy flagship sailing back to the 1970s—the perfect epitome of Corbyn’s nostalgic hostility to the modern world. This acolyte of Tony Benn—the last industry minister with serious plans to take private business into public ownership—had never accepted the Thatcher revolution, and apparently wanted to return to the days when the local authority ran your water, the Post Office somehow controlled the phones, and the consumer came reliably last.
I happened to be working in Downing Street during the last election. While the officials dutifully went through the motions of examining the Labour manifesto, nobody seriously thought they would have to do it—including, one suspects, in the Labour Party itself.
If that was ever a tenable position, it is not any more. Labour has put serious work into its policy. Arguments about valuation have found their way into the public domain, in what looks like a carefully-orchestrated softening-up of current owners and an attack on their call to receive market value. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has become more nuanced, singling out parts of the regulated utilities that are right for public ownership, and others where capitalism is presumably just fine.
Read its pamphlet on energy networks, and you can tell that Labour has brought some regulatory expertise to bear. It recounts, almost in sorrow, the sheer difficulty of the regulators’ job in trying…