Socialist Worker

Let’s take back our assets from the bosses

 After Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn called for nationalisation, Ken Olende looks at what this would mean for workers—and how to make it a reality

Issue No. 2469

 

Jeremy Corbyn’s talk of nationalisation has outraged the press. He has suggested that a Labour government he heads would take major utilities back into public ownership. 

This includes the railways, the big six energy companies and the national grid.

Despite the outrage his initial demands were actually quite moderate. He said renationalisation  would “cost” because of the need to buy shares and bonds. In other words, the fat cats who have grabbed public services would be compensated when they lost control.

More radical was the proposal from Corbyn’s campaign manager John McDonnell MP. 

He said that if Tory chancellor George Osborne sells any more national assets “a future Corbyn-led Labour government will reserve the right to bring them back into public ownership with either no compensation or with any undervaluation deducted from any compensation for renationalisation”.

It would take a serious battle to force the rich to relinquish any of their wealth (see right). But McDonnell is absolutely right. We should collectively own and control all these key services. The bosses, who have made billions, shouldn’t get another penny.

One recent study showed that every man, woman and child in Britain is more than £3,400 in debt—without knowing it and without borrowing a single penny —thanks to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals used to pay for infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.

Banks and businesses are “owed” £222 billion. The interest payments drain money from the NHS. PFI needs to go—without paying off the privatisers who have already made vast profits. 

We support Corbyn and McDonnell when they call for renationalisation. It’s time to be bold and implement it—and it would be popular. 

In 2013 a YouGov survey found  84 percent of people wanted the NHS in public hands, 68 percent for energy companies, 67 percent Royal Mail and 66 percent rail.

Socialists back nationalisation because it counters the idea that the market should be left to its own devices.

Firms

Nationalised firms tend to have better working conditions, although this is also true in private firms with a militant workforce.

But nationalisation is not itself a socialist act that benefits workers and consumers. That’s why revolutionaries always stress nationalisation with democratic social control. Workers and the people who use services must be in charge. 

The first nationalisation in Britain was carried out by a Liberal government with the Telegraph Act of 1868. 

It was done to make it more efficient—and the owners were paid three times what it was worth.

The same is true of the most recent batch of bank takeovers.

Clement Atlee’s Labour government elected in 1945 nationalised about 20 percent of the economy. 

Much of the ruling class agreed that this was necessary to restructure the economy. They feared the alternative might be the kind of uprising they saw at the end of the First World War.

The Beveridge report that laid the basis for the NHS and much of the welfare state was compiled by a Liberal, not a socialist. The first major nationalisation was the Bank of England, with full compensation and the reappointment of the existing director. A similar pattern was repeated as railways and other services came under public ownership.

Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s nationalised steel. But in general he preferred “state direction” that left big firms in private hands. 

Most bosses were grudgingly happy with the situation. At the time they could believe that everyone could get richer. 

When crisis hit in the 1970s they were determined that the poorest should pay for it. And to do that they wanted to demand that workers should have no say in how society was run.

Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan pushed the idea that economic problems were caused when people tried to buck the market and the unending search for profit. They said that only the private sector ran utilities efficiently. 

New Labour accepted this argument.

Forgotten

They had conveniently forgotten that the untrammelled hunt for profits drove industries into the ground.

The Tories claim that nationalisation makes industries unproductive. But the industries that are nationalised first are almost always those that are in crisis. 

Nationalisation raises at least the idea that ordinary people could have some say in production.

Some nationalisations gave trade unions a limited number of positions on the board running firms. But none get rid of workplace hierarchies—even at the peak of nationalisation in 1946.

In the end what matters is who is in control of the workplace. Stafford Cripps, a Labour minister during the 1930s, said that workers didn’t have enough “managerial” experience to run things. He told the Times newspaper, “I think it would be almost impossible to have worker-controlled industry in Britain.”

The experience of the Russian Revolution suggested a completely different way of looking at how work should be organised.

The radical journalist John Reed wrote in 1918, “There was a committee meeting at one of the factories, where a workman arose and said, ‘Comrades, why do we worry? 

“The question of technical experts is not a difficult one. Remember, the boss wasn’t a technical expert.

“All he did was to own. When he wanted technical help, he hired men to do it for him. Well, now we are the boss. Let’s hire engineers, bookkeepers and so forth—to work for us’.” 

Tragically the revolution was defeated. But it showed a real alternative to private ownership is possible.

British Gas bosses and friend march to the stock exchange on 8 December 1986 for  its first shares trading following privatisation

British Gas bosses and friend march to the stock exchange on 8 December 1986 for its first shares trading following privatisation (Pic: John Sturrock)


Workers’ organisation can wring wealth from the bosses

The ruling class would resist any attempt to take back major public assets. It would threaten their wealth and pose an ideological challenge to their position.

That’s why the right wing media, owned by the rich, is kicking up such a stink about Corbyn.

But the rich can do much more than wage nasty media campaigns if they feel under real threat.

The super-rich—bosses, bankers and industrialists—hold real power in our society. Bosses constantly threaten to use their economic muscle to keep politicians in line.

If MPs discuss raising the minimum wage, for example, bosses talk of how many jobs this will cost.

They say they may be “forced” to relocate their businesses to countries where they can exploit workers more freely.

Banks threaten to downgrade the credit ratings of countries that fail to comply with neoliberalism. 

This hits the ability of states to borrow money, potentially causing chaos.

We are seeing this process unfolding before our eyes in Greece.

But the blackmail isn’t new.

Elected

In Britain, the Labour government elected in 1974 threatened a “fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth”.

Bosses engineered a run on the pound and the government retreated.

If the rich deem it necessary, they will use force to protect their position.

Any measures that challenge the wealth and power of the bosses will need organised workers’ action to drive them through.

Workers have a unique power because they produce the bosses’ wealth.

They have the strength and the numbers to stop bosses’ attacks—and also to bring about revolutionary change.

Venezuela’s ruling class organised to try and overthrow left wing leader Hugo Chavez in 2002.

But ordinary people mobilised to stop the bosses’ coup.

Even if reforms did succeed in taking some wealth from the rich, they will always try and take it back in the future.

A lasting shift in the balance of power will mean fighting for a new society altogether to get rid of them for good.


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