Privatisation slows down worldwide

Has the money lost heart, or is it the bureaucrats?

Via Richard Murphy comes this Financial Times piece (£), suggesting that privatisation may be declining globally:

The pace of privatisation around the world has slowed sharply, with an unprecedented number of asset sales delayed or cancelled amid volatile markets and political uncertainty.

Despite governments across the globe continuing to hoist for-sale signs over state-owned enterprises ranging from airports to electricity networks, the number of completed deals last year was less than half the 2010 figure, according to the Privatisation Barometer, a joint project between KPMG and Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, a Milan-based research institute.

The report (pdf) offers the explanation that last year was one of "global financial retrenchment", prompted by the Eurozone crisis and the fight in the US over the debt ceiling. It offers, as a "dramatic" example of the former:

The Spanish government['s] forced cancellation, literally days before execution, of what would have been 2011’s largest privatization — the October sale of 30% of the national lottery, Loterias y Apuerto del Estado, which would have raised over €7 billion ($9.7 billion) — and the near-coincident delayed (not yet renewed) sale of the Madrid and Barcelona airports that could have raised more than €5 billion ($6.9 billion).

The explanation leaves something to be lacking, however. If, as the report argues, the Eurozone crisis was one of sovereign debt, then it ought to have led to more, not fewer, privatisations, given that they are one of the most effective ways for a nation to raise in a short period of time the amount of cash necessary pay down debt.

Similarly, the big economic story of the last year has been the flight to safety, which has led to the reverse-sovereign-debt-crisis being experienced across much of the world, as well as little quirks like RORO. That too ought to lead to greater, not lesser, privatisation, since taking control of an established monopoly is a pretty safe investment. So long as a company doesn't completely misjudge how much it can make from a utility (looking your way, GNER), it's hard to fail when buying out the state (hard to fail, that is, from a financial point of view. Very easy to fail when it comes to actually providing services).

I think the best explanation is that privatisation is becoming uncool, not for economic reasons, but for political ones. States simply don't want to take the unpopular move of handing over control of their services to the private sector. Whether this is good or bad depends on the specific circumstances (as with Matt Yglesias, I think a well-thought-out mutualisation of the US Postal Service could do wonders, but the sale of Madrid and Barcelona airports risks creating the nation's own version of BAA), but Murphy thinks there is something to celebrate anyway:

Let’s hope that there might also be a realisation implicit in this that people now realise that it’s not just banks that can be too big to fail, but that much else that we depend upon is also too big to fail, and needs to be state run to ensure it survives as a result.

Barcelona airport, following a protest by cleaners. The airport was due to be privatised this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide