Saturday, October 02, 2010
An Open Letter to Ed Miliband
This column of mine appears in the Morning Star.
It's also posted over at the CPO website.
Dear Ed - if I may -
Congratulations on winning the contest for Labour leadership.
In your leadership campaign you presented yourself as the candidate for change. You've said that new Labour is "dead" and that a new generation has now taken over.
But in order to convince those thousands of former Labour members and voters (myself included), that the party really has changed from the days of Blair and Brown and will once again put the interests of people before capital, mere words will not be enough.
Nothing could demonstrate better that a clean break has been made with the new Labour years, than for the Labour Party once again to embrace public ownership.
Clause IV, drafted by Sidney Webb and adopted by the party in 1918, stated that the aim of Labour was "to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service."
It remains the best definition of socialism I have ever come across. The Labour Party since its inception had always been an alliance of social democrats and democratic socialists, but when the party ditched Clause IV in 1995, it was a sign that it had lurched dramatically to the neoliberal right. To its shame, new Labour when in government continued the Conservatives pro-privatisation policies, despite privatisation's growing unpopularity with the public at large.
The restoration of the original Clause IV into the Labour Party's constitution would be a sign that Labour's privatisation days are over.
But short of that, there are four important areas where Labour, under your leadership, can prove that it really has broken with the failed economic dogma of the past.
First, Labour can campaign for the return of Britain's railways to full public ownership.
In opposition Labour opposed the Tory sell-off of British Rail. But to the huge disappointment of Labour supporters and the travelling public, Labour reneged on its promise when it came to office in 1997 and continued to subsidise profiteering private rail operators.
Rail privatisation, as all but the most fanatical free-market ideologues would agree, has been a total disaster.
Despite Britain's privatised train operators receiving around four times more in public subsidy than British Rail did in the last years of its existence, British rail fares are easily the highest in Europe, with commuters paying around twice as much as other Europeans. Trains are frequently overcrowded, with commuters who have paid thousands of pounds for season tickets being forced to stand in toilets.
Renationalising the railways would not only save taxpayers' money in the long term, it would be a voter-friendly policy - even a majority of Tory voters support taking the network back into public ownership.
It would also make sound environmental sense - bringing back British Rail and reducing prices to the European average would encourage people to leave their cars and use the most environmentally friendly form of transport.
Second, there is the fight against the privatisation of the Royal Mail, whose sell-off was recently announced by Business Secretary Vince Cable.
Royal Mail has been in state hands since its inception in 1516. It's proposed sell-off shows just how far to the neoliberal right Britain has travelled in recent years.
Shamefully, the last Labour government, of which you were a member, advocated a partial sell-off, but this fortunately was abandoned.
Will Labour now join the fight to keep the Royal Mail in full public ownership?
Again, this would be a voter-friendly policy which would put Labour on the side of the majority and expose the coalition for the extremists that they are.
Third, there is the battle to save the NHS. As the Guardian commentator Seumas Milne has pointed out, Andrew Lansley's white paper Liberating The NHS would, if enacted, mark the end of the NHS in all but name.
Will you give a commitment to unequivocally oppose Lansley's reforms and pledge Labour to defend the NHS and the principle of socialised, state-run health care - one of the party's greatest and most long-lasting achievements?
Fourth, there is the shameless profiteering of Britain's privatised utility companies such as British Gas, whose profits doubled to £585 million in the first six months of 2010, after it failed to pass on to consumers the full benefit of a sizeable drop in wholesale gas and electricity prices.
Before the privatisation of our utilities, household water, gas and electric bills were not the major items of expense for homeowners that they are today.
Last year a survey found that Britain's energy bills were rising four times faster than the EU average, while earlier this month a survey found that Britain's electricity bills - like our train fares - are the highest in Europe. Only renationalisation can end this profiteering and bring bills down for hard-pressed families and businesses.
You will, I'm sure come under enormous pressure from capital and its political emissaries to keep to the same pro-privatisation, neoliberal policies as your immediate predecessors.
It certainly concerned me that in your leadership election campaign you made no commitment to renationalise the railways - as fellow leadership candidate Diane Abbott did. Now though, you have a great opportunity to show that Labour really has changed.
If you do ditch Labour's support for privatisation and adopt a more positive stance towards public ownership, it will be proof that new Labour really is dead. You will be adopting policies that have the support of the vast majority of the British public, who are sick and tired of privatisation.
Supporting public ownership will make your more - and not less likely - to become the next British Prime Minister.
I hope that you will seize this historic opportunity to make Labour once again the party that puts the interests of ordinary people above the interests of capital.