Nicky Morgan is MP for Loughborough, and is a former Education Secretary.
If you are under 40, then the phrase “If you see Sid… tell him!” may not mean anything to you. But for a period during the 1980s, it captured how Britain was changing under the Thatcher government. Millions of voters who supported MargaretThatcher believed that the privatisation of British Gas demonstrated her determination to reduce the size of government, and give them a tangible stake in the country’s future. Becoming a shareholder in BT, British Airways, British Gas or one of the de-mutualised building societies meant that you were part of a bright new future, -and you didn’t just have to put up with someone else deciding what your lot in life should be.
It took the Thatcher government to break the post war consensus – and ask why the British Government needed its own home removal business, or a monopoly telephone provider which took weeks to provide a new handset and connection. Accepting private ownership of our public utilities, our railways and other services was one of the great leaps that New Labour had to take to be considered ready to govern again.
Given the state of the current Labour Party, it was therefore no surprise to see public ownership of the railways, energy companies, Royal Mail and water companies back on the agenda in their manifesto – albeit with no idea how a Corbyn Government would pay for it.
One of the great changes in the provision of water which has slipped completely under the radar is that, from 1 April, our water industry has been further de-regulated ,and business customers will be able to switch suppliers. This is a world first. And one of the companies ready to take advantage is an SME in Loughborough – Dynamic Flow: an SME with a big future already employing a number of people and ready to grow. Just the kind of company which politicians like to have in their constituencies, strengthening the local economy. Would we see any such deregulation in a newly nationalised water sector? Of course not.
Here’s another example of how private sector ownership works. Is it likely that the chief executive of a nationalised water company would bother to sit down on a regular basis with their regional MPs to gather their feedback? Would such a chief executive respond personally to e-mails from an MP about water problems in a local village? Unlikely. But Liv Garfield, the Chief Executive of Severn Trent, does both, because she knows how important it is to keep consumers (and their parliamentary representatives) happy. To the chief executive of a nationalised company, his or her customer is the government, and his aim is to keep the funds flowing by keeping Whitehall happy.
The words “public ownership” don’t appear once in last week’s Conservative manifesto. Instead, it says: “Capitalism and free markets remain the best way to deliver prosperity and economic security, lifting millions of people out of poverty around the world. Markets need rules and these rules need to be updated to reflect our changing economy.” And this is how government can be, as our manifesto says, “a force for good”. Government shouldn’t be running services, but it should regulate them, and must step in where service and standards are so poor that no-one should be expected to put up with them.
The Prime Minister might not want an “ism” named after her, and she is right that Conservatives should not be hamstrung by ideology but, unlike Jeremy Corby’s Labour Party, we do believe in the flourishing of innovation and enterprise, and know that government needs to create the conditions for that to happen. So: “If you see Jeremy, tell him: we don’t want to go back to the 1970s”.