Much of McDonnell’s speech at the Labour party conference today focused around what he referred to as the “economic democratic rights” of our country. Unsurprisingly therefore, the notion of public ownership and renationalisation formed a key component of the shadow chancellor’s speech. McDonnell declared that Labour would be extending this economic democracy by bringing several industries, including rail and energy, into public ownership.
He also promised “unprecedented openness and transparency” in their management. The shadow chancellor focused specifically on the water industry, advancing the economic argument that, in the face of a 40% rise in bills and £18 billion in dividends, “we can’t afford not to take them back.” He also points out that multiple opinion polls have proven that people aren’t as scared of the renationalisation of industry as some might proclaim. Whilst McDonnell does not offer any specific insight in the same way to the energy and transport industries in his speech, the same overarching economic rationale for renationalisation applies.
Perhaps the most important element of McDonnell’s speech – and the one that is drawing the most political commentary – is the overtly socialist tone. Certainly, McDonnell ended his speech promising a proudly socialist future. With regards specifically to his comments on public ownership, this ideological element is already drawing a mix of reviews in political commentary.
The Independent’s chief political commentator remarked that McDonnell’s comments on public ownership can otherwise be read as “Proper socialism has never really been tried, but Long-Bailey and I are going to work it out shortly.” The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman was less scathing. Whilst noting that it is no different to Corbyn’s adherence to the ideology, she praises McDonnell for the comparative clarity in his argument for it. Hardman also referred to renationalisation as one of the “crowd-pleasers” that the shadow chancellor has fallen back on from his speech in Brighton last year.
This comment in particular raises an important question: is renationalisation the answer to industry woes, or is it simply an ideological “crowd-pleaser”? Will it fix these problems of declining quality and rising costs or is it, despite McDonnell’s promises to the contrary, simply a nostalgic return to the past with no real proof that it will succeed?