This piece of mine appears in today's Guardian.
Plans to sell off Winston Churchill's Tote will do nothing for efficiency, competition - or racing.
Considering his other political achievements, it is understandable that setting up the Tote - or Horserace Totalisator Board - in 1928, only features as a minor footnote in the extraordinary career of Winston Churchill. But for lovers of racing, the impact of Churchill's creation has been immense.
For 78 years, the "nanny goat" has enjoyed a monopoly of horse-race pool betting in exchange for a guarantee that its profits are ploughed back into the sport. The arrangement has helped make British racing what it is today - a compelling, richly varied pageant which enhances the lives of millions of people.
But now racing's beneficial relationship with the Tote is under threat. The government is hellbent on privatising Churchill's creation in a move which has caused consternation throughout the racing world. Despite the opposition of the late Robin Cook, one of the few politicians in Westminster to understand horseracing and the role the Tote plays within it, in 1999 the government announced a "review" of the options for the future of the Tote. The outcome was a 2001 manifesto commitment (repeated in 2005) to sell the Tote to a Racing Trust "to allow it to compete commercially" - a favourite catchphrase of the pro-privatisation lobby which we have heard ad nauseam in relation to the planned sell-off of the Royal Mail.
To placate critics of privatisation, the government made it clear that they would not countenance a sale to another big bookmaker. But when racing, in the shape of a consortium of Arena Leisure, the Racecourse Holdings Trust and an owners group did come up with a bid, they were told that their offer was far less than the official £400m-plus valuation and that a sale at a "knockdown price" of £310m would contravene EU state aid rules.
The government has subsequently backtracked on its commitment to keep the Tote in racing, saying recently that its aim in the sale is "to achieve value for money for the taxpayer, while recognising the racing sector's legitimate interest in the Tote by ensuring that racing benefits from the sale". In reality, racing will benefit very little, regardless of what cosmetic measures the government put in place when the sell-off goes through. The Tote made a £10.7m contribution to racing last year, and the absence of shareholders means that the Tote's post-tax profits (which last year were £6.5m) remain in the sport as well. Contrast this with Ladbrokes, Britain's largest retail bookmaker, whose profits from racing have, until recently, helped its parent company Hilton embark on an ambitious programme of hotel acquisitions. None of the arguments regularly put forward by supporters of privatisation apply. A Tote sell-off to one of its rivals will not increase competition - it will do exactly the opposite, leaving millions of punters with much less choice than before. The Tote is no inefficient loss-making enterprise, on the contrary it is inherently profitable and, in its 78 years of existence, it has never taken a penny from the government in subsidy.
Why then, when virtually everyone in racing was happy with the status quo has the government been so determined to privatise? The boosting of Treasury coffers to the tune of £400m is of course a factor, but the real reason for the sell-off is, I believe, ideological.
The privatisation of the Tote demonstrates just how wedded to neoliberal dogma New Labour is. When a Labour government tries to sell off an institution that was set up by the Tory government of Stanley Baldwin - and which escaped even the attentions of the serial privatising Margaret Thatcher - you realise how far down the road to market fundamentalism we have travelled.