Monday, March 08, 2010
This column of mine appears in The Morning Star. It’s also cross-posted at the Campaign For Public Ownership website.
The NHS is a great example of socialism in action. Public libraries are another. The idea of a place where all members of the community can go to borrow books which are communally owned is a quite wonderful one and totally at odds with neoliberal ideology, which prefers private - and not public - provision.
This is probably why, in this age of neoliberalism, public libraries in Britain are under grave threat.
A new report by the Valuation Office Agency showed that Britain has lost nearly 200 public libraries since 1997.
The number of books available to be borrowed has fallen dramatically - by 13 million in the period 2003-9. And worse could be to come, with swingeing cutbacks in local government spending likely to reduce the library service still further.
Part of the problem with the decline in libraries is that a new generation of people, brought up in an age obsessed with private ownership, prefer to buy books from bookshops rather than borrow them free of charge from their local library.
In 1979, by contrast, two-and-a-half times as many books were loaned by libraries than were bought at bookshops.
It's revealing that older people - brought up in a more collectivist era - use public libraries much more than younger Britons whose formative years were in an acquisitive society where private ownership became our country's new religion.
To reverse the decline in public libraries, therefore, we don't just have to increase spending on them. We need to change the whole ethos of our society to one where people once again relish sharing communally owned goods.
Hoping for change in Germany
One of the most disappointing political events of the last year in western Europe was the return to government in Germany, after an 11-year absence, of the fanatically pro-big business Free Democratic Party (FDP).
The FDP, a partner in the current Christian Democrat (CDU)-led coalition, favours massive cuts in public spending, cuts in the top rate of income tax and further privatisation.
The new German government has stated its intention to proceed with a partial privatisation of the country's state-owned railway Deutsche Bahn.
But the good news is that the plan has met opposition from within the government itself.
Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer - a member of the Christian Social Union party, the Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel's CDU - said he was not prepared to "squander economic assets" and blamed privatisation plans for the deterioration in services on the Deutsche Bahn-owned S-Bahn in Berlin.
The battle going on within the German government is one between fanatical neoliberals - the FDP - and the more moderate conservative protectors of the Rhineland model.
Let's hope the latter, with help from unions and the German left, can defeat the former and keep Germany's excellent publicly owned railway on track. And let's hope too that the stay in government of the extremist FDP is extremely short-lived.
Tackling the real problem in the NHS
The script is a familiar one. Before a state-owned enterprise is privatised, it is necessary to convince the public that the enterprise in question is failing to deliver the goods and is in urgent need of "reform."
That's what happened in the 1990s with British Rail. And it's what's happening today with the NHS.
Anti-NHS propagandists have made great capital out of a recent report on the failures at Stafford hospital, where at least 400 patients were held to have died due to substandard conditions and care in the period between 2005-8.
But as Unite's national officer for health David Fleming has pointed out, Stafford's problems were not caused by public ownership but by the obsession with what he describes as the "target-obsessed privatisation culture."
Stafford hospital was run by the Mid-Staffordshire Foundation Trust. The Department of Health claims that foundation trusts are "at the cutting edge of the government's commitment to the decentralisation of public services" - which is neoliberal-speak for "they are a great back-door way to achieve privatisation of the NHS."
With their commercialised, profit-obsessed approach - and their £180k chief executives - foundation trusts are inimical to the very ethos of Nye Bevan's NHS.
Last month it was revealed that Royal Surrey County NHS Foundation Trust made a profit of over £300,000 in one year by selling abroad £4m of drugs intended for use in Britain.
The best way to make sure that the deaths at Stafford are not repeated is to scrap foundation trusts and restore the NHS to its original, 1940s socialist ideals, where the needs of patients are put before profits. And that also means bringing all ancillary services, such as cleaning and catering, back in-house.
End the annual energy profits charade
It's become an annual event. Britain's privatised energy companies announce enormous profits having failed to pass on the reduced price of gas to consumers.
Cue harsh criticism from Ofgem and expressions of shock and outrage from politicians and media commentators.
Meanwhile things carry on as before, with the privatised companies continuing to fleece the public.
The one thing that will put an end to this annual charade is the measure that none of our three major parties, still wedded to Thatcherite dogma, will even contemplate - the renationalisation of Britain's entire energy sector.
Public limited companies will always put the interests of shareholders before the interests of the general public. If we want the interests of the public to come before profits, we must have public ownership. It really is as simple as that.