Post-Pandemic: Real Public Services
The 2019 General Election left many of us shell-shocked. It appeared as if our chance to end the failed forty year experiment of privatisation had been abruptly taken from us. Publicly owned services - something which has overwhelming public support - was firmly off the agenda. Or so it seemed.
Two things have changed that.
Firstly, Boris Johnson’s government has proved far less predictable than previous Conservative administrations we’ve seen. Gone of the days where Conservative governments churning out stock phrases about there being no “magic money tree”, tightening our belts and prudent public spending. In place of this, we’ve seen the government make lots of noise about splashing out on infrastructure spending - particularly in the North and Midlands as repayment for “red wall” voters lending their vote to the Tories.
And this all came before the world was hit by the coronavirus crisis. Since then, we’ve seen the economic orthodoxy of the Conservative Party torn up as ‘market knows best’ has been replaced with repeated state intervention in the economy. This has been shown in few places more clearly than in our public services.
Bus companies have been handed a £400 million bailout to prop up their operations as passenger numbers plummet. Likewise, the government has ended the franchise model that has operated on our railway for 25 years, replacing it instead with a system where the state guarantees the income of the rail companies to keep the trains running. And in health - private hospitals have been brought in to join the battle against coronavirus in a nominally not for profit deal with the NHS.
The problem of course, is that the government has opted for half measures rather than the solution that is staring them in the face. It has chosen to attempt to shore up the failed model of privatisation through injecting public money into private companies. This is at a time when those same private companies have proven to be just as unscrupulous as ever - with FirstGroup chair David Martin saying the company planned to “maximise shareholder value” and “create substantial return to shareholders” during the crisis.
Indeed, the government’s actions have shown the fundamental farce at the heart of the privatisation project. When business is good, private companies let the profits roll in. When business is bad, the government will step in and pay them to carry on anyway. Profits are privatised, while losses are nationalised.
The other course of action would be to bring our services into public ownership and run them for the public good, rather than private profit. That way, we can build an economy more resilient to major shocks like that caused by coronavirus - where the public sector takes the profits, the risks and the losses and can balance these over time. That’s on top of the benefits we’d get from lower fares and bills, more integrated services and a genuine say on how our services are run.
Nevertheless, the Conservatives appear for the time being wedded to this broken and costly model. But that can change. The public has become far more aware just how vital our public services are - and just how vulnerable they are to shocks, and how ill-prepared privatisation has left them for crisis. After this crisis has abated, the pressure on the government to move beyond business as usual will be immense.
As a starting point, we need to apply that pressure to remove the immediate threats to our public services. The government is still ploughing ahead with a trade deal which keeps our NHS on the table and at risk of being further privatised for the long term. And Dominic Cummings’ plans to “whack the BBC” might have faded into the background, but they’re still lurking behind the scenes.
Public reliance on these institutions has risen since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, as both our NHS and the BBC have proven invaluable. That needs to be mobilised to stop them from being dismantled after we’re through the woods.
From there, it’s a question of building on that momentum, demanding our NHS be reinstated in full - with an end to privatisation, outsourcing and underfunding - and that the rest of our public services be run in the interests of the public. It’s what the people want. And they deserve nothing less.
- Cat Hobbs is Director of We Own It