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The Campaign Against Water Privatisation: Balance Sheet and Future Prospects 

1 March 2006


The document below began life as an internal discussion document within Socialist Democracy.  As such it represents our views only and is not intended to represent the views of other organisations and individuals within the Campaign Against Water Privatisation. Our members have discussed the document and agree with the overall analysis and the general line of march that it outlines.  We are making it available to our readers in the hope that it will encourage a more general debate.


This document is an analysis of the history and current state of the campaign against water charges.  It will cover the nature of the government’s water reform programme and the strategy for its implementation, and also the opposition that has arisen to it, particularly our own Campaign Against Water Privatisation (CAWP).  On the basis of this analysis, and the conclusions drawn from it, a number of suggestions are made on how the campaign should change and move forward.

Initial proposals brought forward by government

The first formal indication of the government’s water reform programme was when it issued a consultation paper on the issue in March 2003.  In August 2004, the government’s proposals for the future of the Water Service were announced.  The two key elements of the water reform package were the introduction of a separate water charge (previously it had been a component of the rates), and taking the Water Service out of the public sector by turning it into a government owned company (GOGO).  The Water Service workforce was to be cut by a third.  The average annual water charge was to be £400.  No household was to be exempt.  The only concession was to give a 25% discount to the poorest households, which would be funded by other users.  It was envisaged that all this would be in place by April 2006. 

Socialist Democracy’s initial response

The water reform package was clearly a neo-liberal policy, the heart of which was service charges and privatisation.   Our initial response to these proposals was to identify their key dynamic as privatisation.  We argued that water charges were not an end in themselves but a means to an end.  It was the objective of moving the Water Service into private ownership that necessitated their introduction.  Following from this analysis we argued that the most effective way to oppose water charges was to oppose the privatisation of the Water Service.  This is the principle that has distinguished us within the anti-water charges campaign. 

Opposition to water charges 

Public opposition to the introduction of the water charges was widespread.  It was the first “non-sectarian” issue in many years to provoke such a strong response, with polls showing the vast majority of people opposed to them.  In response to this public sentiment, a number of opposition campaigns emerged.

The first element was the local political parties, who claimed to be against water charges.  This is despite fact that when in the executive they commissioned a report to examine the issue.  The strategy of the political parties was to lobby the government for a change in policy.

The second element was the NGOs and charities.  They essentially made a plea on behalf of the poor, lobbying government to make more concessions on poor households and to reduce the level of the charge.

The third element was the trade unions.  Formally, they opposed both the water charges and the creation of the GOCO.  While they did raise the prospect of industrial action they insisted that it would not be a political strike against the policy of privatisation but on “industrial” issues.

To a large degree these three elements, both in terms of organisation and strategy, overlapped.  They shared the belief that opposition meant presenting the widest possible front to government ministers and appealing for them to be reasonable.  The consequence of this strategy was to base the campaign on the lowest common denominator of opposing only the water charge.  As opposing privatisation was a divisive issue and there was no prospect of getting the unionist parties to sign up to this, it was largely ignored.

It might have been expected that the left run campaigns would have been better than this, but they shared many of same assumptions.  Both the Socialist  Party’s “We Won’t Pay” and the “Communities Against the Water Charge” concentrated solely on the charges.  What distinguished them was their tactic of non-payment.  They argued that this was the tactic that would beat the water charge.   It had worked in the England over the poll tax and had defeated water charges in Dublin.  The assumption was that all we needed was a repeat in the north.  This mechanical view completely ignored the current situation and history of political struggle here, particularly the bitter legacy of non-payment tactics.

Launch of CAWP

It was the nature of the existing campaigns that led Socialist Democracy to launch the CAWP.  The reason for this was not primarily that we disagreed with them, though we did. It was because these campaigns were not democratic.  Their positions and tactics were preset and not up for discussion, all they allowed for was signing up householders to non-payment pledges.  For us these campaigns were totally inadequate for the task of building an effective opposition. What was needed was a campaign that was democratic, principled (in this case the principle of opposing privatisation), and which would allow for a range of tactics. 

To explore the possibility of setting up such a campaign we held a public meeting in November 2004 on the topic of opposing water privatisation.  It took the form of panel discussion with ourselves and invited guests – Jason Brannigan of ‘Organise’, Mark Langhammer of Labour, and Tommy McKearney of Fourthwrite.  All the other left groups were represented in the audience.  It terms of discussion this was a useful exercise with all the political, organisational and tactical questions being examined.  However, what was clear from this meeting was that there was no agreement.  Rather than be part of a broader anti-privatisation campaign the left groups still wanted to control their own little campaigns.  They could see no further than non-payment being the answer to all strategic and tactical problems.

The only group that responded to our invitation to set up a campaign based on opposing privatisation was the Irish Socialist Network.  Significantly, they had previously advocated non-payment.  The fact that they did not allow this to be a barrier to unity showed that they were open to debate.  Though small, the establishment of the CAWP, demonstrated that it was possible for the left to come together on a political basis.  For SD this gave us the opportunity to engage in a practical way in the wider issue of left unity, to engage in activity and discuss politics with working class people.

At this time we also engaged in our own activity on how to oppose water privatisation.  An important element of this was the production of a pamphlet on the issue.  This examined the government’s proposals in detail, the consequences of water privatisation in England and Wales, and what type of campaign we should be aiming to build to oppose water charges.  The type of campaign we envisaged as having the most potential for success had water service workers at its head, opposing water privatisation through industrial action, with support from other sections of public sector workers.  The role of the broader working class in this would be to build support in their local communities for the water workers.

In a sense this was an ideal, in that we did not expect the creation of such a campaign.  What we pointed out to people, trade union militants and socialist activists in particular, was what was needed, and the task that confronted us, if water charges were to be defeated.  Rather than pander to the lowest common denominator as other campaigns had, we were trying to raise people’s political consciousness and attract towards the campaign the more class-conscious workers.

In terms of activity our aim was to build up groups in local areas who would agitate on the issue of water charges, giving particular emphasis to the issue of privatisation.  These groups would be built up incrementally, and when we had six or more we would call a conference to move the campaign to the next stage.  We were trying to create a grassroots campaign in working class communities that would put pressure on the existing leadership and organisations of the class (i.e. trade unions) to seriously oppose privatisation. It would also act as a means to seek the unity of all the other campaigns.

The first public meeting we had to build a local group was in the Beechmount area.  This turned out to be to be quite successful with a good turnout at the initial meeting and the establishment of a local committee.   A number of people were involved in the leafleting and petitioning of their area and met on a regular basis.  This initial success gave us hope that similar committees could be established in other areas. 

Weakness of opposition

However, when we tried to established committees in other areas we were unsuccessful.   Despite extensive leafleting in Turf Lodge and Whiterock, the public meetings in these areas were poorly attended.  The Poleglass meeting did get a better response but due to a “mix up” over the opening of the venue we were not able to go ahead with it.  A meeting in the Lower Ormeau area also draw a reasonable crowd, but we were unable to establish a committee.  These failures have been partly due to the campaign’s organisational shortcomings, but there was also a sense of people feeling there was little they could do to stop water charges.

This sense of powerlessness was undoubtedly heightened by the inaction of the trade union movement.  Apart from a token one-day strike and rally by Water Service workers in Feb 2005, trade union activity was non-existent.  The strike happened in the same week as a public rally against water charges. Significantly, the workers rally was on a different day to the public one.  Clearly, trade union leaders wanted to dissociate themselves from political issues that might be raised at the public rally such as opposing privatisation.  They were reserving the right to deal with “industrial issues”, which in practice meant negotiating redundancy and transfer terms for their members.

Another sign of the weakness of the opposition was the poor turnout at the public rally.  Only about five hundred people marched through Belfast City Centre.  This was very poor for an issue that had caused so much public resentment.  It demonstrated the chasm between public sentiment, which no matter how strongly felt was essentially passive, and creation of a real opposition campaign.

Despite the failure to establish more committees, we were able to do a number of other activities with the Beechmount group - an intervention in the May Day parade, and the showing of a programme about the impact of water meters in Wales with an introduction from one of the journalists who worked on it.  However, unable to link up with other groups the range of activities for the Beechmount group was very limited.

Government’s revised proposals

When the government announced it was delaying the introduction of charges for a year, some groups, most notably the We Won’t Pay Campaign, hailed this as a victory.  But rather than a victory it became clear that the government was preparing a more comprehensive and thought out package on water reform.  That around the same time it was announced that water treatment facilities would be privatised indicated that the government’s core policy was still intact. Also, the lack of reaction to this from the trade unions demonstrated that they were not going to effectively oppose privatisation. All this was a green light for the government to press ahead.

What remained for it to do was to deal with the limited opposition to the water charges that existed.  This was the purpose of the revised proposals on water charges announced in Nov 2005.   In these proposals a number of concessions were announced on the level of the water charge.  There was to be a reduced rate for low income households (constituting a third of all households) of £180 annually, while the remaining households would have their average bill reduced from £400 to £350.  These charges would be phased in over a three year period, with only a third of the bill being paid in year one.   Of course these guarantees on bills are worthless as the central element of the government’s policy, the privatisation of the Water Service, is still intact and once the new water company moves out of government ownership these will be void. 

Nevertheless although the government proposals were a fraud they were effective in dealing with what opposition remained.  Opposition from charities and NGOs fell away with some of them welcoming the government’s plans.  There was also a muted response from the political parties and trade unions, which means they have effectively accepted it.  This opposition, which was based solely on the level of water charges, didn’t present a fundamental challenge to the government. 


The fundamental weakness of the campaign against the water charges was the lack of organised working class opposition.  This itself was a reflection of the low level of political consciousness amongst the working class in the North, and related to this, the continuing hold of the dead hand of the bureaucracy on the trade union movement.  It also shows that, contrary to the unstated assumptions of the ‘we won’t pay’ campaigns, you cannot simply bypass that existing leadership.  It has to be challenged.

The lack of an organised working class opposition also undermined our own arguments which looked to water workers, and more generally public sector workers, to lead a fight against privatisation.  This was emphasised by the lack of reaction to the privatisation of water treatment facilities.  The government’s water reform policy has not been sufficient in itself to provoke the sort of reaction amongst the working class that could translate into a serious opposition movement.  This cannot be created by small campaigns such as our own.

Our strategy for building the CAWP, of trying to establish committees in local areas, has largely been a failure.  Despite attempts to establish committees in six areas of Belfast, the only area we succeeded in was Beechmont.  Having only one committee meant that the range of activities was limited. 

The government’s new proposals on water charges has made the task of building local groups even more difficult.  While our campaign focused on privatisation, most of the people who got involved, particularly the pensioners, were more concerned about the water charge, even if they recognised it was linked to privatisation.  The government’s concessions on charges mean we are less likely to attract such people, who would be the backbone of a community based campaign. By making concessions on the level of the water charges, and offering a reduced rate for poorer households, it has undermined much of the opposition.

Those groups who campaigned solely on the level of the water charge, including the non-payment campaigns, have either welcomed the new proposals or been completely wrong footed.  It is difficult to see people getting out on the streets, let alone go to court, over an initial water bill that for many of them will be sixty pounds.  It is unlikely that those on the left wedded to the view that only non-payment will bring victory will acknowledge this problem.

Future of anti-water charges campaign 

Our campaign should continue.  Water privatisation is still a massive issue facing the working class in the north, and one that will continue to have prominence over the next few years. It is not one we should refuse to try to confront even if the mass of workers are not yet willing to do so.

Our arguments over privatisation are still relevant.  Despite the concessions over water charge levels, the policy of moving the Water Service towards privatisation is still in place.  Once the Water Service moves into private ownership any government guarantees will be void and bills will rise dramatically. 

We therefore need to repeat the central importance of the issue of privatisation.  This is the key issue in reform of the Water Service, and also in the wider neo-liberal offensive against the public sector that is taking shape.  We should also try to reach people who actually work, rather than simply the poor, particularly those who work within the public sector and are increasingly conscious of the attacks upon them.  Of necessity our campaign will have to seek out working class people with a relatively higher level of class consciousness and seek to involve them in some structured political activity.

Our central focus should remain on the Water Service as this remains one of the biggest challenges facing the working class and has registered in the public consciousness.  It is also the best example of how the government’s neo-liberal agenda is being advanced in a whole range of other areas, as it encompasses both privatisation and increased charges.  However, this does not exclude us from taking up other issues and areas related to privatisation.

In terms of activities we will still campaign in local areas, but these will have more of a propaganda than agitational nature. We will not attempt to build local committees.  Instead will try to build a Belfast wide network or committee of working class activists who recognise that privatisation must be fought on a political basis and organised at a grassroots level.  The purpose of the campaign would be to identify these people, organise them and allow them to be the means of politically advancing future mass opposition.

This network will be held together through a newsletter and regular activities.  Activities could include attending trade union demonstrations (e.g. those related to possible civil service strikes), holding public meetings, city centre stalls, an intervention in this year’s May Day parade and a tour of small towns.  While initially small, it is hoped that the network will lay the basis for an organisation that can intervene in future struggles.  When such struggles do break out we will not have to go back to square once again, for a layer of activists will already exist. 

The CAWP offers us an arena of activity and to engage with working class people and activists.  It is also provides a forum to develop our relationship with ISN, setting a small exemplar of how socialist groups can co-operate, and allows us to feed into the broader debate on left unity, what the purpose of such unity is and how it may be organised. 


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