The most brutally effective line against nationalisation has always been this: “politicians are too incompetent to run things that should be left to others”. Just one example from a 2015 Policy Exchange poll (see p.37 ): by 64 per cent -16 per cent, people agreed more that “politicians don’t have sufficient expertise to successfully manage crucial public services, which should be run by experts in their field”, than “politicians are basically competent and they should be responsible for managing crucial public services like our education system and the health service”. The injection of the truth that nationalisation means politicians in charge of things is enough to make most people see sense.
But so far this line has been rarely used outside free-market think tanks and campaigns. As technocrats themselves, most modern Conservative MPs reject the notion politicians aren’t qualified to run complex things, while others think it isn’t credible for any politician to make a small-state argument in this way. They discount the obvious point that Ronald Reagan did this to great effect, and Margaret Thatcher to a point. And businesses are nervous about using this line because they think it too aggressively questions the competence of those politicians they think they need very friendly relationships with (which it does, but these relationships are overrated).
I doubt this will change. So, how can politicians and businesses make the case against nationalisation without use of this weapon? On the face of it, things don’t look good. Of course, there are big majorities in favour of the NHS, the police, the armed forces and schools being run in the public sector. But there are clear majorities, too, in favour of railway companies, water companies, energy companies and bus companies being run in the public sector. (Conservative voters are opposed to the nationalisation of this latter group, but other parties’ voters are very keen).
While no doubt true in reality, it’s not credible to argue prices would be lower if companies were kept in the private sector. A YouGov poll from last year showed 47 per cent of people believe energy prices are having a detrimental effect on their household’s financial situation – and people generally think pretty much everything gets more expensive. And it doesn’t seem credible to argue that customer service is better in the private sector. For example, another (again, admittedly dated) poll of people showed they thought energy tariffs, a crucial aspect of consumer choice, were very difficult to understand.
If not these, then what? A glimmer of hope is provided in a recent ComRes poll commissioned by various water companies. In it, when asked to rank issues that government should prioritise with regards to spending public money, while priorities like the NHS and the police come very high up, nationalising private companies comes very low.
This shows the power of the argument that there are many, many other priorities Governments should be focusing on, rather than nationalisation. This idea is backed up in a (now quite dated) YouGov poll, which put various policy arguments together in a sort of “knock-out” tournament. While nationalising railways scored highly when polled against a wage cap, it polled badly against increasing standards of care in the NHS. This might seem an odd exercise, but it’s a useful sense check: ideas that poll well in isolation can often fall away when exposed to political context.
But it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the “priorities” argument is simply the least worst. Politicians and business leaders will be going on TV knowing their argument “the time isn’t right” isn’t convincing anyone to support private business, but just that the Government ought to be doing other things – like pouring more money into the NHS, for example. Politicians and business leaders might succeed in kicking the can down the road, but if people don’t actually change their minds about the issue it’s easy to imagine it coming up again in the future.
Which takes us back to the start. Politicians and business leaders can’t ignore the “competence” argument, and must find a way of using it without discomfort. That means creating a “process” argument: explaining that, say, Jeremy Corbyn will need to appoint politicians from his party to design a nationalisation scheme that will work, potentially inspired by what’s recently taken place in foreign countries, and to appoint other politicians to run these new departments impeccably to ensure services are delivered cheaply and without any break.
Politicians and business leaders won’t need to start explicitly questioning politicians’ competence; a discussion of what’s necessary will likely make people question the merits of the process.