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Nationalisation-how it could work

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Issue 1690

What do socialists say?

Nationalisation-how it could work

By Kevin Ovenden

NEW LABOUR says it is unable to stop the loss of 50,000 jobs in the West Midlands and the decimation of the car industry. But the government could do something. It could nationalise Rover, as increasing numbers of workers in the car industry and elsewhere are demanding. It has the power to place Rover under public ownership. It’s just that it does not want to. Only massive protests and militant opposition can make the government change its mind.

Governments are not powerless. Governments the world over intervene daily in the economy-usually in the interests of the bosses. The US government ordered a bailout of Long Term Capital Management, a stock market gambling syndicate, when its collapse in September 1998 threatened to pull down the banking system. Gordon Brown’s budget last week intervened in the economy to cut taxes for fat cats.

The government has showered big business with subsidies, such as a recent 530 million grant to British Aerospace, and hundreds of millions of pounds to the successive multinationals that have owned Rover. Many economic commentators say that the “globalised economy” means governments can- not stand up to big business because companies would simply relocate elsewhere. It is true that the world’s financial markets have grown enormously over the last 20 years. Money can move around the globe as never before. However, that money-bits of paper, shares, and so on-is only as valuable as the goods it represents.

Those goods have to be manufactured. And it is far more difficult for companies to move plant and equipment from one part of the world to another than it is for them to buy and sell shares or shift wealth into different currencies. Multinationals want to stay near to their markets and their suppliers. They cannot just up everything and run whenever they feel like it. That is why BMW says it wants to keep the Cowley plant in Oxford to make the Mini, for example.

But why should BMW be allowed to cream off the most profitable parts of Rover while handing the Longbridge plant over to asset strippers? The government could seize all of BMW’s assets in Britain, which also include the highly profitable Rolls Royce motor company. And it should not give BMW a penny compensation.

Nationalising Rover would lift the immediate threat to jobs. It would save the futures of the 10,000 Rover workers who face the dole in just five weeks time. It would immediately prevent the destruction of communities. On top of that, it would provide a positive example to other workers and give them encouragement to fight.

What would a nationalised Rover produce? Wouldn’t it face the same problem of fields full of cars that could not be sold? But if cars could not be sold, a government committed to Rover’s future could transfer workers’ skills and the plants’ technology over to things like the buses and trams needed to provide a decent public transport system. This would mean nationalisation that is different from the past. On occasions governments have been forced to nationalise industries. In 1975 a Labour government nationalised British Leyland, as Rover was then known.

But Labour paid 60 percent over the odds to shareholders for the company, and brought in Thatcherite boss Michael Edwardes who sacked 54,000 workers. Nationalising one firm alone will not put a stop to the insanities of the system. That will take more far-reaching change. Other industries, such as steel and shipbuilding, which are threatened with closures would also have to be nationalised.

The state would have to seize more and more of the bosses’ wealth and develop a plan for the economy that put the needs of workers at its centre. This would mean workers being involved in decisions about what is produced and supervising management. Any serious moves to do that would provoke bitter opposition from capitalists in this country and abroad. They would use their economic power to try and sabotage the economy.

They would even use their control of the heart of the state-the army, police and senior civil servants-to subvert or overthrow the government. Labour-type governments, including those that spoke much more left wing language than Tony Blair’s, have always buckled under such pressure. They have backed away from confronting the capitalist system because they believe the system essentially works and is in need only of piecemeal reform.

So winning even the nationalisation of one company requires pressure from workers through mass strikes and occupations. Such struggles can win important immediate gains. But they need to be part of a process aimed at breaking capitalism.

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