In 2019 the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, published a manifesto which promised to nationalise the big six energy firms, National Grid, the water industry, Royal Mail, railways and the broadband arm of BT. The policy was particularly popular with those on the left, and most of these commitments have since been dropped from the current Labour Party’s pledges ahead of their manifesto which, of course, is yet to be published.

Nationalisation is popular. Or so it seems. YouGov runs regular tracking surveys on specific issues. Asked ‘Do you think railways should be brought back into public ownership?’, those supporting renationalisation have risen from 24% strongly in favour in 2019 to 37% in April 2024. When you add this to the 30% who ‘tend to support’, we find widespread support for the railways being brought into public ownership.

Much of the support for nationalisation is based on an assumption that private companies are inefficient and unpopular. However, the latest railway experience survey puts satisfaction at 87%. This is curious because, if people are genuinely satisfied with the railways, as they are, why should they support a change that might, or might not, make things worse? Some clue is to be found in the detail of the report. The lowest levels of satisfaction are value for money (although even this records 61%) and lack of internet access (58%).

It’s important to realise that nationalisation is not the same thing as public ownership. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition manifesto of 2015 included the following: “Bring privatised public services and utilities back into public ownership under democratic control.” TUSC went further committing to: “Bring banks and finance institutions into genuine public ownership under democratic control” and “Take rail back into public ownership..”

Whilst this seems to be about opposing privatisation and therefore concerned with nationalisation, it talks not of nationalising industries but of public ownership.

This is not just a semantic difference. Nationalisation implies state control. It replaces private management with state controlled management. Quite likely the same people. Public ownership under democratic control suggests more than simply giving the profits to the government rather than private shareholders, although many would no doubt see that as a step forward.

The fact is that nationalisation is not a specifically socialist policy. In 1905 the Italians became the first country to develop an entirely ‘nationalised’ railway network. The rationale for this bold move was that the cost of developing a viable network of rail lines was too restrictive for any private enterprise to be able to do so whilst also turning a profit. By 1913 the few remaining private rail companies operating in Italy were brought into public ownership.

The ‘October’ Revolution in Russia was the largest nationalisation programme in history bringing all manufacturing, retail and agriculture, into public ownership. 

The UK’s relationship with nationalisation has an even longer history than either Italy or Russia. In 1858 the British East India Company was formed, though this was as much an act of plunder as of economics. It was a method to ensure that Indian trade was under the remit of the British state.

One of the strongest arguments for nationalisation is that the profits can be used to subsidise other socially desirable policies: build more schools perhaps or invest in the NHS. But this sidesteps an issue of whether public ownership should continue a system in which public utilities have to make a profit. If, for example, there is no profit to be made from railways, but they offer a greener transport alternative, would that be a good reason to maintain them or, driven by a desire for profit, should the state-owned company see itself as operating in a capitalist economy and therefore play by their rules?

Democratic control is the key to this debate. Who makes the decisions about the provision of transport, health, broadband provision etc. Should this be in the hands of private companies who will invest only if there is a profit to be made? The state which will act as a private company but without shareholders and with the backup of massive state subsidies for unprofitable parts of their business? Or should democratic control mean that those affected by the provision of these services should have a say in the way in which they are run? Should the workers who give their lives to the industries we all so rely on have a say in how they are run? What if there is a dispute between the workers and the local community, how should this be resolved?

Writing nationalisation in a manifesto might be popular but it tells us little about how that is to be managed. Adding democratic control simply shifts the ground somewhat to how that is going to work to everybody’s advantage.

If nationalisation is right for the railways, health, the post and energy, why is it not right for every other industry. And, if it is the case that removing private ownership of industry is what socialists desire, isn’t it time that’s what we started saying, instead of pretending that a mixed economy has ever been to the advantage of the majority of workers?

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