Labour and Co-operative Member of
Parliament for Kemptown and Peacehaven

CREATING 21ST CENTURY PUBLIC OWNERSHIP

by Lloyd on 10.11.20 in Uncategorised

BY LLOYD RUSSELL-MOYLE MP

What does public ownership mean in the Labour Party in 2020? In our last manifesto we laid out plans to nationalise or mutualise certain industries and to give workers greater controls of large private industries. It can seem, however, that public ownership boils down to nationalisation.

In fact, much of the debate does not seem so different from the 1947 Keep Left Group of MPs, who were an ideological, if not direct, predecessor to the Socialist Campaign Group. In a 1947 pamphlet, and again in their 1950 manifesto they stated: “This nationalisation programme has been carried out vigorously and needs to be continued to embrace every industry which has a hold over our national economy, or which cannot be made efficient in private hands. “

But 1947 was a post war economy, much property and industry had already been expropriated for the war effort. Now that nationalisation programme, which had been so vigorous, is a faint memory, with many industries sold off or shut down.

Of course Labour Party Socialists hold public ownership dear to our hearts, it was hard wired in our party constitution: “…upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” (Clause 4 1918-1994)

Even the current constitution states: “…power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few…” (Clause 4 1994 – present)

Power and wealth in the hands of the many and common ownership are not automatically the same as Nationalisation. The 1945 government was able to nationalise as much power was already in Whitehall, but is power in Whitehall actually power in the hands of the many?

As Tony Benn pointed out in 2001, “The British Labour movement has a fine tradition for arguing for greater industrial democracy”.

In 1910, the Northumberland miners speaking to the Sankey Commission said: “Any administration of the mines, under nationalisation, must not leave the mine worker in the position of a mere wage-earner, whose sole energies are directed by the will of another…. He must have a share in the management…”

In 1947 the Keep Left Group (who at its peak included giants such as Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan) said: “Industrial democracy is not so much a matter of machinery as of attitude. The joint production committees set up during the war operated in most factories in the letter, but in only a few in the spirit, of the agreement setting, them up. Nevertheless, it would give a tremendous fillip to organised labour if the joint production committee system were extended.”

One of the great failures of past nationalisations was that the joint production committees’ model was not adopted or extended, and instead national boards of these industries were appointed by the government and not workers. Whilst some union involvement remained it was often limited representation, and those that organised in that relevant sector were often the unions that were kept at bay, far from the boardroom door.

In 1971 Tony Benn speaking to the Engineers’ Union, stated that his time in government led him to realise that we had replaced one set of managers with a set of “new grey-flannel brigade in shiny offices”. Whether these offices are in Whitehall, or now the centre of capitalism in Canary Wharf they often are the same class of people running industries from the top down.

For the worker the difference is slight. One set of Oxbridge graduates replaces another set of Oxbridge graduates, who are often friends. CEOs running rings around shareholders is replaced with mandarins running rings around politicians. Labour must not be a party for the managerial civil servant, we are the representatives of the people fighting against the concentration of power for the few in all its forms.

DEMOCRATIC PUBLIC CONTROL

Moreover, from the public’s perspective, whilst doctors and teachers are not viewed as civil servants, their main interaction with recognisable government officials is rarely perceived to be positive. It may be the parking attendant giving them a ticket, the police officer stopping and searching them, or the bureaucrat losing their forms, sanctioning them on benefits or the housing officer who lets them rot in damp, dangerous accommodation.

We know much of this is because of underfunding and we must bring trust back into government, and pride into those front-line public services, but we must also understand that government control of industries has not always filled the public with confidence. In the 1980s polling by the Labour Party often showed that public ownership was a far more popular concept than national ownership, and at any rate many areas of our lives need local accountability.

When Engels said we needed industries “established in a democratic constitution and through this the direct dominance of the proletariat”, what does that mean today? You would expect me as a long-standing co-operator to offer you co-operatives and mutuals (non-profit, member owned and democratic) as a solution.

THE CASE FOR CO-OPS

Utopian socialists, who predate Marx and Engels can of course be criticised for their theory of change, but they raised an important distinction that the workers must have control not just via government, but in directing their work. Both Robert Owen’s workers’ co-operative ideas and Rochdale Pioneers consumer co-operative, respectively 30 and four years before the Communist Manifesto, must equally be held up as part of our common heritage and modern answers for socialism.

Some co-operatives have, however got themselves a bad name, in part because the collapse and failure to secure a government bailout led to the privatisation of the Co-operative Bank, and the corporatisation of many nationally recognised co-operatives means that people struggle to tell the difference between a Tesco Clubcard and the dividend.

More fundamentally however, the undermining of real workers, consumer and multi stakeholder co-operatives with the “third sector” has led to confusion and mistrust. There has been the transfer of publicly owned housing stock to “third sector” sometimes even “co-operatives,” only for people to find their rents increased, their accountability reduced, and repairs still not done.

Instead of putting non-profit or benevolence at the heart of public ownership it must be true democratic ownership, and true democratic power.

Power is nothing unless it means that the mutual owners can discharge their power by getting rid of mangers and requiring them to take certain actions.

It is not only for a lofty ideological ideal or for democracy, or an attempt to reduce the excess of the monopolistic characteristics of late state capitalism, that we Socialists should seek public ownership. It is for efficiency too.

The case is easy for natural monopolies where competition is just a fraud, and profit just a bounty payment. The electricity wire to your home, the sewage pipe down your street or even the bus that drives down that same street are all areas where competition is so impossible the capitalists have had to create pretend markets to hide their extraction of wealth.

In these natural monopolies the state (local or national) must always play a role. It might be in being part of a multi-stakeholder cooperative such as Labour’s plans in 2020 for water, or a state-run reseller supporting more cooperative, mutual and non-profit suppliers in a state-run national grid as we proposed for energy sector.

In industries where there is some market, for example the travel industry or home removals, it is not clear cut that the government should have the controlling stake. In these areas a user can walk away, and small providers are no less efficient and already predominate.

New platforms like Airbnb or Uber cannot be wished away even if we wanted them to (which I certainly don’t), but they are currently extractive with poor regulation. What must happen here is a democratisation of these sectors for the seller, the consumer and the local community who have a stake as the neighbour and road user.

These industries not only need regulation, but they need support to become multi-stakeholder co-operatives which can be more efficient than their current one-sided capitalist model. This requires a proactive set of measures that give tax, regulatory and practical help to those co-operative ventures, which rewards those who feed their profit back into social value and democracy.

At the same time, we must strengthen the laws on Co-operatives, and not allow them to be weakened by overly managerial control and ensure that they can be the model of our new economy.

Just as the Conservatives in 1977 wrote the Ridley Report (The Report of Nationalised Industries Policy Group) which outlined in what order, how, and in what manner each privatisation should take place, we need our own Ridley equivalent. Between 2015-2019 much of that work had been started. It is incumbent on us to make sure that we prepare the way to what is now not only publicly popular and practical, but also an economic necessity.

Two years ago, left wing trade unions in Australia did just that. In their report “Taking Back Control: A community response to privatisation” they outline the dangers of current privatisation, and the principles, steps and framework for each key area to be brought back into public control. They established people’s commissions for each area, and we should do the same. Communities around the world are realising that they cannot just be run on the accumulation of capital alone, and the bulwark against crony capitalism is democratic socialism and its core tenant democratic public ownership.

As Benn in his 1971 speech points out, over a century ago we removed power over national government according to who owned land, now we must remove that power over our nation by who owns industry. If we are to have a true democracy it must start in the workplace and in the community.

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Labour and Co-operative Member of
Parliament for Kemptown and Peacehaven

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