The implementation potential of Private or Public ownership can be distilled down to a single event of voter choice where hopeful’s at the ballot box are elected to government every five years or so. The best of both evils sits sometimes obscured by more palatable policies in a set menu of manifesto pledges. It’s like going to the food shop (store) for some bread and being obliged by convention to come away with a basket of produce that is not necessarily wanted. We as voters are compelled by our electoral system to pick what effectively amounts to one of two policy baskets wholesale. This denies real competitive choice in terms of policy and gives the winner an open check to do what they want, contrary to the principles of representative government. Neither has a monopoly on the truth and both express an approach with undertones of impractical idealisms, whilst competing for the National mood in earnest only in the run up to a general election.
In our predominantly two party parliamentary system, Labour have more recently pledged in their 2019 General Election Manifesto for public ownership (https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Real-Change-Labour-Manifesto-2019.pdf ) in principle for Rail, Water, Mail, Energy and the broadband relevant parts of BT. However keep in mind that this is a shifting landscape as the Corbynite led Labour Party has now shifted more to the centre of political thought under the leadership of Kier Starmer. So watch this space for what I’m assuming will be a nuanced policy shift.
The headline arguments under Labour are that nationalisation will provide security for our national strategic infrastructure and ensure decentralisation occurs equitably. This has been a waxing and waning Labour ambition, which saw it’s demise most notably when Tony Blair removed Clause 4 as a hallowed commitment to mass nationalisation. With reference to the Institute of Fiscal Studies (https://election2019.ifs.org.uk/uploads/BN271-Labour%27s-nationalisation-policy.pdf) report it can be noted that nationalisation draws out the following concerns in relation to Labours most recent manifesto commitments:
- This would lead to a £200 billion plus increase in the assets owned by the public sector and would add over 310,000 to the size of the public sector workforce.
- This approach would also at least bring £150 billion of debt onto the public balance sheet on top of the sum paid out to the current owners of these assets in compensation. This is no mean amount given that in April 2022 the UK public sector net debt was already at £2,347.7 billion or around 95.7% of GDP and climbing.
- These companies are operationally important and economically hugh strategic industries in the UK and we shouldn’t understate the disruption to the UK as they are transitioned into public ownership. On the back of other more recent shocks to the economy due to COVID and Energy Market hikes we can ill afford to add more instability.
Additionally, Public bodies lurch seemingly uncontrollably between:
- Continuous round of budget constraints and forced savings.
- Being overly sensitive in labour disputes and disagreements.
- Resourced by lower quality staff given the lower mean wages offered which in turn leads to compromised productivity.
In competition for our votes is the Conservative party which took a seismic shift right wards under Thatcher given her adoration of Fredrick Hayek and his seminal work The Road to Serfdom. In his book Hayek warned of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning. Put another way this economic doctrine promotes the notion that free markets rather than government should completely run all business enterprises.
What we have are two fundamentalist diametrically apposed economic / market policy strategies which swing wildly from, do nothing on principle to let government run the show. We are pivoting between free market neoliberalism and command economic principles at policy extremes, without any consideration for real world practicalities. Extremes do not work for the vast majority of society, at least not after the economic wedding night in the case of free markets. Mundane as it maybe, taking a more hand-in-glove partnership approach is by far the better option for now.
Having worked in public service companies for many years and also the private sector for a similar duration at a high level there’s a blended alternatives. So we should do away with nationalisation as there are very dubious benefits to be realised when doing a cost benefit analysis between expense to the tax payer and performance to the customer. Conversely, giving over a strategically important Public company to Private ownership (most often foreign) causes a less than ideal relationship between provider / supplier and the principle beneficiary, in this case society. It also places us all at risk given the foundational idealism that neoliberalism promotes that errantly suggests that the free market can do no wrong. This is blind faith and not realistic in the real world. Free markets to a reasoned observer, who has joined the informational dots up into real knowledge, is more often understood as being a totally wrong premise.
Why not bring standard operating models into play that businesses adopt when outsourcing a service provision or contract to a service provider?
In these more symbiotic business relationships a closer day to day exchange is created between at least two of the principle stakeholders, provider and supplier. This is predicated on embedding the service provider into the business and not handing over, as is the case now, functional control wholly to the supplier. This is in contrast to the current hands off provider / regulatory body regime that is inflexible, slow to act, absolute to a fault and subject to the political whims of government.
In such a relationship the Target Operating Model would see governance overarching the functional business towers. That governance would necessarily provide change control boards, innovational councils, workplace experience office in addition to Executive oversight. As a way to measure real value the measures of success could include Service Level Agreements, Sustainability targets, Customer Level Experience to bring the third important stakeholders into the benefits fold. Social capital for the consumer would also have a place by adoption civically oriented core values that are translatable into practical business practices. The most socially exemplary core value could include, as is the case of Welsh Water, the virtue of not-for-profit.
The possibilities are endless if only government would start to work for society as a whole and not give succour to impractical idealisms focused to the benefit of vested interests. This battlefield of extremes needs to stop as both in turn have proven to be in their idealised form non-workable. Partnerships work and our right ownership, Public or Private, certainly do not.