So the latest Blairite plan to derail the Jeremy Corbyn steamroller is to try to label him as rewriting clause 4 when it is perfectly clear that what he is really trying to do, rightly, is to re-start the debate about public ownership which is now so badly needed. Thatcher’s dominant ideology was ‘let the markets run the whole show and the State get out of the way’ . That was the route to the efficient allocation of capital underpinning a strong economy, offering big rewards for innovators and entrepreneurs and a trickle-down of prosperity for all. Blair if anything took it even further with privatisation of public services and regulation-lite hands-off the City of London. So was it a phenomenal success? Unrestrained free-market capitalism led directly to the biggest financial crash for a century, the banks massively abused the power of de-regulation as we keep seeing day after day in the papers, and the privatisation of energy, water, rail and the Royal Mail have even Tories demanding the restoration of public ownership. And even that’s without the scandals of behemoths like G4S, Serco, A4E, Atos, and Capita.
With the dominance of corporate power has come unrestrained market greed and a collapse of accountability. Private markets have proved a bonanza for shareholder dividends and executive bonuses, but a millstone round the neck of (to use the uncomfortable cliche’) ‘hard-working families’. The housing market has reduced owner occupation by 12% over the last decade and has made home ownership a no-go area for millions of young couples. The energy cartel has exploited its pricing power ruthlessly till Ed Miliband threatened to impose a price freeze and to restructure the industry. The pensions market abounds in steep hidden charges which enrich the City of London and impoverish millions of public sector workers who are reduced in retirement to penury. The fragmentation of rail in the precipitate and ill-thought-through privatisation of 1996 has been seen as a costly mistake even by most Tories. And part-privatisation of both health and education is rejected by a majority of the electorate.
Corbyn’s opponents bluster against public ownership as a ‘throwback to the past’. But in truth what they’re advocating is a throwback to the private market heyday economics of the 1920-30s – and where did that lead to? The real point has nothing to do with purity or ideological dogma: it’s about what works best, and the record of private markets in the last 30 years of the Thatcher-Blair imperium has not exactly excelled itself. Moreover the record does not, or at least should not, turn on money-making and profit, but rather on quality of output, service to the customer, and benefit to the wider community. We badly need a public debate on how public and private markets perform under those criteria as well as efficiency, and how sometimes co-operation serves the public better than mutually destructive competitiveness.