Labour’s recent policy announcement of nationalising part of BT and taxing tech giants in order to provide free fibre broadband to every household in the country has resulted in the usual displeasure from the right wing commentariat, as well as various Tory and Liberal Democrat figures implying it to be some sort of communistic experiment. Considering, though that BT was in public ownership up until 1984, this is a testament to how far the Overton window has shifted rightward as a result of the neoliberal economic orthodoxy.
The good news is that Labour is effectively challenging this at the upcoming election, as it has been doing since 2017. The pledges to nationalise rail, water, Royal Mail and telecommunications will allow for a new era of economic prosperity to be shared by the many, and are necessary to ending the post-Thatcherite consensus that has held so much back.
Firstly, Labour’s policy to bring about free broadband has already been shown to be hugely popular. YouGov’s snap poll has shown that 66% are in favour of this policy and only 22% oppose it. This follows the trend for polling other forms of nationalisation. Having the rail, water, and mail services in public ownership all seem to have more than the majority in favour.
The Tories economic policies of simply more of the status quo are clearly out of touch with a public which is lethargic of more expensive and inefficient services provided by private monopolies and oligopolies. The economic data seems to back up the public’s perceptions. For example, water prices have risen by 40% since privatisation. More than 12,000 jobs have been lost since Royal Mail was sold off by the coalition government, whilst its boss has gained a pay rise of £100,000 to his salary. These issues are inherent to private ownership, especially of natural monopolies such as rail and water, since any sort of competition is highly limited. When profit for the owners and maximisation of shareholder values become the only goals, fairness and a good service for consumers come last. This is evident in the public perception throughout the previous years.
Critics of such policies, and the large scale nationalisation and spending plans that Labour are proposing ignore the widespread need for such investment into our economy. With the case of broadband in particular the UK is in great need of investment and improvement. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) statistics show that Britain ranks 35th out of 37 countries assessed for the proportion of fibre in its broadband. Furthermore, Britain has fallen from 8th to 10th in the EU for levels of connectivity. Whereas South Korea has 97% of its country covered by broadband (number one on the list by the OECD), with a much more active state involvement in developing the infrastructure needed to roll it out, and indeed with implementing it, compared to only 8-10% for the UK.
Labour’s £20 billion investment goes further than this, it will provide broadband for free, which will save ordinary families hundreds of pounds per year, and bringing the many benefits of fast communication through broadband to every household, which is especially lacking in rural regions. Finally, this policy will be paid for by large tech giants, going some way to address the inadequacy of the tax they pay to the UK exchequer, for example Amazon, which paid only £1.7 million in taxes in 2017, despite profits of £72.3 million. This policy is effective on two fronts. The first, allowing for improvements in fibre broadband coverage in the UK. Second, for its cost burden to fall on those large corporations which are yet to pay their fair share of taxes, as opposed to ordinary workers and consumers.
Trusting corporate interests to deliver essential services has seemed to be a policy that can no longer be relied upon. Labour’s policy to bring these into public ownership is to be encouraged if we hope to build an economy which serves the public’s interest as opposed to private monopolies who have few incentives to change the current arrangements, catering to their ability to profit off such services as opposed to investing into those services for the good of the public.