Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell had Tory business secretary Sajid Javid on the ropes over his handling of the Tata Steel crisis last Sunday.
McDonnell’s suggestion that Tata’s plants could be nationalised put him much more firmly on the side of steel workers than Javid, who has floundered.
The Tories desperately want to avoid nationalisation.
In the 1950s and 60s, during a boom, Tory governments could live with nationalised industries that provided an infrastructure for the rest of private manufacturing.
By the 1970s the Conservatives wanted a frontal attack on workers, and the chill logic of the market everywhere.
Under Margaret Thatcher the Tories sold off huge chunks of industry that had previously been publicly owned, including British Steel.
They said economic problems were caused by state interference—and that big businesses should be left alone to make money.
So nationalising Tata Steel would be more than just an embarrassment. It would be to admit that the chaos of the free market cannot be made to work in the interests of workers.
Under Tony Blair, the Labour Party continued the Tories’ privatisation project. So it is welcome to hear a Labour shadow chancellor raise nationalisation as a way of saving jobs.
But McDonnell’s vision of nationalisation is limited.
Last September McDonnell promised that if the Tories sold off any more assets, a Corbyn-led government would “reserve the right to bring them back into public ownership with either no compensation or with any undervaluation deducted from any compensation for renationalisation”.
Now McDonnell is arguing for nationalisation not as a way to challenge the bosses, but to make industry profitable for them.
When asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday if nationalisation meant a return to “old Labour”, he insisted his plan was “nationalise in the short-term to stabilise the situation to then bring a buyer forward”.
This reflects the fact that Labour’s practice has never been to get rid of capitalism, but to try and manage it in the interests of both bosses and workers.
McDonnell’s argument that “the best way forward is to secure a buyer as quickly as we possibly can” is not too different from Javid’s own promise to “offer support to eventually clinch that buyer”.
The plan is to use the state to save the system that has put so many jobs at risk.
Socialists should back any calls for nationalisation. But we should go further. Nationalisation isn’t always about bailing out the bosses when they get into trouble.
It counters the idea that the market should be left to its own devices. And it can point in the direction of a society run in the interests of ordinary people, not for the profits of a rich elite.
We don’t want a nationalisation that just has the state acting like the old bosses. It should be democratic social ownership with the workforce directly involved.
Labour should promise to nationalise all of Tata Steel, along with railways, utility companies, Royal Mail and all public services—and keep them.
The idea of steel nationalisation should be to save workers’ jobs and conditions, not bosses’ profits.