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Last summer, a coalition of trade unions published Rebuilding Rail, a meticulously researched report calling for Britain’s railways to be brought back into public ownership. Labour responded positively, with transport spokeswoman Maria Eagle saying the report put forward a ‘coherent case for reform’. The Tories countered that Labour wanted to ‘take us back to the 1970s’, and Labour’s enthusiasm appeared to cool.
Few things seem guaranteed to get under Labour’s skin more than the accusation that the party will ‘take us back to the 1970s’. This is in part due to the prevalence of a neoliberal view that has demonised much of post-war Life Before Thatcher.
But it is also a reminder to anti‑privatisation campaigners that they must make the case for something better than has gone before, not a return to the past. As Andrew Cumbers points out, the post-1945 model of nationalisation was indeed bureaucratic and over-centralised, and it wasn’t just the followers of Friedrich Hayek who said this but those on the new left too.
His first chapter provides an excellent overview of that post-1945 period. ‘Morrisonian’ nationalisation was vital to post-war reconstruction, but ‘the lack of creativity or imagination surrounding the government’s plans and its willingness to defer to established interests became particularly striking characteristics’.
As well as adopting the new-left themes of economic democracy and public participation, Cumbers takes seriously Hayek’s critique of centralised planning as a hindrance to innovation and knowledge sharing. He acknowledges that this is a particular problem in relation to ‘tacit’ knowledge, which is ‘bound up in social practices and routines within different parts of the economy’.
But Hayek’s market-based formula is no solution. Ask an employee whose work has been outsourced to Capita or G4S how much of their tacit knowledge has been retained. Instead Cumbers sets out a vision of public ownership that rejects a one-size-fits-all model and promotes a diversity of approaches, with power dispersed from the centre.
Far from going back to the 1970s, the problem we face in Britain is that we remain weighed down by the baggage of the 1980s. Cumbers’ 21st-century vision of public ownership offers a way forward.