It’s not been a good week for fans of privatisation. First Lord Mandy announced, presumably through veils of agonised tears, that the part-privatisation of Royal Mail would not be going ahead as planned, and then the East Coast Mainline had to be taken into public ownership.
Both actions were forced on the Government, but they betray the abject weaknesses of private ownership and control of public services. With the Royal Mail, the Government claimed that it couldn’t guarantee a decent price for the stake on offer in the current circumstances, but it is doubtful that it will ever be able to sell it for the amount that it is hoping for. Why? Because most of the previously money-making operations that Royal Mail performed have been ‘liberalised’ – in other words private companies have been able to cherrypick the best bits. What remains is the loss-making, unglamorous universal service that we rely on.
Examples abound of privatisations earning the Government very little. This is either due to the almost corrupt nature of many of them, with senior civil servants involved making an absolute mint (Qinetiq being a prime example of this), or the fact that so many sweeteners need to be offered companies in order for them to bite.
The East Coast Mainline is a failure of a different nature. The idea of splitting the rail network into franchises was a spurious means of introducing ‘competition’ into what was an efficient, integrated system. It is spurious because on most routes only one franchise operates, and because the free competition consists of which companies have the better franchise negotiators and ability to lobby Government for fare increases.
Virgin managed to continue to receive subsidies despite their dreadful performance on the West Coast Mainline. National Express were not so fortunate, having been pressed into committing to pay billions to the Government.
The Government was demanding billions because the cost of the railways has got out of control. Companies cream off profits, the inefficiencies of fragmentation and the soaring costs of ensuring safety in an industry dominated by organisations putting shareholders before the welfare of the public, have all combined to reach this sorry outcome.
It is an indictment of the pathetic faith that New Labour has in private sector, neoliberal solutions tied to suffocating central control, that they can’t do the obvious and popular – nationalise the railways. I would prefer that to be under worker-passenger control, but I would settle for BR2.0 at this point.
All of which begs the question, how are we to soothe New Labour’s privatising conscience? These poor souls have had to nationalise vast swathes of the banking sector, as well as another train franchise. How can they get back in the game, just to stop them getting rusty?
Believe it or not, I think I have a solution that even socialists can support – privatise the swans. That’s right. The entire British swan population is currently owned by the Queen. Presumably, as with all property and powers of the Queen, these are effectively owned and ran by the Government.
At the moment, swans do nothing but swim around all day, and inflexibly mate with the first pretty long-necked beast they see. Why not flog them off, perhaps sparking a bidding war between the RSPCA and Bernard Matthews. There could even be franchises, with the black swans of Dawlish becoming a Kingston Communications style oddity, with the company sponsoring Dawlish Town’s new stadium when they march inexorably towards the Premier League? I can’t promise to have all the practical details, but I just float the ideas.
If you’re reading this Mandy, get in touch. I have others. Privatise the Queen. Think of the MPs pay rise you can fund when a rich Texan stumps up for Her Maj. Just think about it Mandy. You know where to get hold of me.