The Centre for Labour and Social Studies is a far left, union funded, think tank. It’s Chairman is Steve Hart, political officer of Unite the Union. It’s management committee includes Andrew Murray also of Unite. Mr Murray is a member of the Communist Party of Britain and has written in Morning Star lamenting how “hack propagandists abominate the name of Stalin beyond all others.”
Also on the Management Committee is Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers and a former Socialist Alliance candidate.
Thankfully they have Owen Jones and Polly Toynbee on the National Advisory Panel to provide a calming influence.
Yet while their views might be dismissed as those of an extremist fringe they are trumpeting a YouGov poll they have commissioned showing huge support for price controls and renationalization.
As ever we need to look at the wording of the question. The choices were whether “the Government should have the power to set prices” or whether “prices should be left to those selling the good or services to decide.” Of course even with the most limited competition the seller could not just set whatever price he felt like if he wanted to actually sell anything.
In the case of rents the support for price controls was narrow – 45 per cent to 43 per cent. In the case of food and groceries there was opposition to price controls by a clear margin – by 55 per cent to 35 per cent. However price controls are backed for transport fares by 72 per cent to 19 per cent and for gas and electricity by 74 per cent to 18 per cent.
When it comes to renationalisation that is backed for Royal Mail by 67 per cent to 22 per cent, for the railway companies by 66 per cent to 23 per cent and by the energy companies by 68 per cent to 21 per cent. Again there is a caveat with the wording – the choices are “should be run in the public sector” or “should be run in the private sector.”
Allister Heath considers the finding in his City AM column:
The results are terrifying: the UK increasingly believes that it is the state’s job to fix the “right” price, not realising that artificially low prices have always caused shortages and a far greater crisis whenever they have been tried. The great lesson of economics is that bucking markets with artificial price controls always fails; far better to address the root causes of the problem – high prices usually imply scarcity, or monopoly, or generalised inflation – or help those who are suffering directly.
What should be the Conservative response?
First of all much of the opposition is not to enterprise but to state protected private monopolies and cartels. When asked about the free market in energy or the railways the response should be, paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi, that it would be a good idea. Rather than being defensive or apologetic about failings in these industries Conservatives should push ahead with radical measures to increase competition.
Secondly, remember that the verdict on policies comes in a General Election and is determined by their overall outcome. On Royal Mail, for example, what matters is whether the service improves or not by 2015 – rather than what most people expect will happen. Cutting the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p was unpopular – however the more important verdict will be on economic growth, which that measure helps to secure.
Thirdly, the broad case for free enterprise does have to be made and nobody is really making it. The think tanks fizz with free enterprise policies – of interest to those who already agree with the principles of free enterprise. The Taxpayers Alliance are effective at exposing wasteful state spending. There are plenty of Eurosceptics to challenge EU extravagance and red tape. Yet sometimes the wider message is missed.
Builders vans in the 1970s would have stickers in the back windscreen opposing nationalisation of the building industry. Earlier, there would be advertisements with Mr Cube opposing sugar industry nationalisation. We had groups like Aims of Industry. There was Ernest Benn and his pamphlets which had a huge distribution.
There are some basic arguments about profits, the price mechanism and state ownership which need to be won again.