There can be no return to old-style nationalisation – thankfully the left is moving on

21st-century public services must be responsive and democratic. We have to look at new ways to 'take back control'.

Pic: A British Leyland (Austin) car from the 1970s.

It is a mark of how far the debate has come that when Labour announced yesterday plans to take water, energy, rail and the Royal Mail back into public ownership, the howls of protest were surprisingly muted. Or at least, you could keep a conversation going on over them. 

Part of this is Labour setting the agenda, and shifting the narrative on all issues. But another key part is that the old assumption that nationalisation means pure state control, like British Leyland in the 1970s, no longer holds. No one is calling for a huge, unresponsive, identikit version of British Rail.

Across the left, there is an acceptance that ‘nationalisation’ must actually mean something quite different to its old meaning. Thankfully, in a shrewd messaging move, Labour’s June manifesto made no mention of it.

Instead, we have to talk about real democratic ownership.

There are many ways of doing that. There is co-operatisation – turning private bodies into co-ops. Previous plans for bringing rail into public ownership suggested having a ‘thirds’ set-up: one third government-owned, one third worker-owned, and one-third passenger-owned. Indeed, Green MP Caroline Lucas has proposed plans along these lines in Parliament.

You can set up not-for-profits which are run by all stakeholders: indeed, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland’s water sectors are all mostly run by publicly-owned or not-for-profit organisations – to keep the sharks out of the water system.

And there is local ownership. the Transnational Institute has outlined ‘at least 835 examples of (re)municipalisation of public services worldwide since 2000, involving more than 1,600 municipalities in 45 countries’ – that means taking services back into local control – and bringing their operation closer to the people.

Today, Corbyn outlined his vision for real democracy in public services:

I promised you two years ago that we would do politics differently. It’s not always been easy. There’s quite a few who prefer politics the old way. But let me say it again. We will do politics differently. And the vital word there is “we”.

Not just leaders saying things are different in a way that leaves everything the same – but everyone having the chance to shape our democracy. Our rights as citizens are as important as our rights as consumers. Power will be devolved to the community, not monopolised in Westminster and Whitehall.

Now let’s take it a stage further: make public services accountable to communities, business accountable to the public and politicians accountable to those we serve.

Let the next Labour government transform Britain by genuinely placing power in the hands of the people – the creative, compassionate and committed people of our country.

(From the Mirror’s feed)

Cat Hobbs, Director of the WeOwnIt, the campaign group for public ownership, told Left Foot Forward:

“There is huge public support for ending the failures of privatisation in energy, water and rail. Instead of wasting money on shareholders, we can reinvest the profits and build public services that work for all of us.

Public ownership is needed at all levels – local, regional and national, with real accountability and democracy. It’s about all of us owning the services we use and pay for.”

There will be some work to put meat on the bones, but 21st century services must be responsive and democratic. Gone are the days of top-down bureaucratic control. Thankfully, the left now recognise that.

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.