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Commons Confidential: Another windfall for the DUP

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, is no Angus Robertson. Darwin’s theory of evolution doesn’t apply to politicians; Nat MPs grumble that Blackford stumbles at Prime Minister’s Questions, which Robertson had owned before he lost his seat in June’s Highland clearance. Blackford ousted Charlie Kennedy in Ross, Skye and Lochaber, then was banned from the Lib Dem’s funeral after a very dirty election campaign.

In a party that leans left, the wealthy investment banker’s registered interests include financial links to a funeral planning business. His nickname “the Undertaker” reflects the gloomy mood of the bereft Nats.

Theresa May’s orange mercenaries in the Bung Parliament brag that propping up the Tories is good for party coffers. A bowler-hatted snout boasted that interest in the DUP’s annual conference in Belfast in November is unprecedented, with business beating a path to the Unionists’ door. Perhaps the DUP will inform companies what it intends to let May do about Brexit.

Social conservatism, too, on Humberside, where Hull West’s Emma Hardy was asked by a local BBC radio station to avoid saying “vagina” on air before discussing vaginal mesh implants. The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in the privacy of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, judged his department wrong to oppose limiting the devices. He cut off the legs of the underling Jackie Doyle-Price, who defends them in public.

Next month, a Labour crew to champion struggling coastal communities with trawlers will be launched. “We have modelled Labour Friends of Fishing shamelessly on the successful Labour Friends of the Forces,” boast the Grimsby skipper, Melanie Onn, and her Plymouth first mate, Luke Pollard. How appropriate that Cod Wars and gunboats should resurface after Brexit.

A wag dubbed the “Wedding March” over footage of the Labour MP Stephen Pound supporting rheumatoid arthritis sufferer Paul Flynn down the aisle of the Commons chamber to present Flynn’s bill legalising the medicinal use of cannabis. “I’m not of that persuasion, but if I had to spend the rest of my life with a man,” mused Pound, “I could think of no finer companion than Paul.”

The Cartoon Awards jogged Hogarth disciple Martin Rowson to recall observing Ken Livingstone and Jack Straw avoiding each other at a previous event.

“We’ve hated each other’s guts since 1970,” drawled Red Ken. To sustain a feud for nearly half a century is impressive, even by the standards of a party doubling as a club for people who detest each other.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.