Conclusion – Drawing the Lessons
Privatisation is all about the pursuit of profit, and the planned privatisation of the water service shows that even such a basic need – water is vital for our immediate survival and health – is to be subservient to the pursuit of profit by a wealthy minority. This subordination of our most basic needs to the accumulation of wealth by a minority will lead to a service provided not to ensure a safe and ready supply of the most basic requirement for existence but to a service geared to maximise profits. This will take place through the cheap sale of assets already supposedly owned by the general public and the provision by the government of price guarantees to ensure the ‘success’ and smooth running of the process. It will mean redundancies of water service workers, reductions in the standards of their terms and conditions and pressure on their wages and pension entitlements. The environment, including the quality and availability of the water we drink, will be at the mercy of a management whose first duty will be to ensure a healthy share price and good dividends.
In the past this process has been trumpeted and celebrated because of the much-acclaimed efficiency of the private sector. The real experience of privatisation doesn’t support such claims. Today the government knows that privatisation is so unpopular it is attempting the process by stealth by putting in place all the elements necessary for privatisation before making the final move of transferring ownership. If attempted all at one it would be too obvious to everyone what the essential nature of the whole process is – the transfer of wealth from the majority to those already rich enough to buy it. The mania for privatisation across the world that is now hitting the north of Ireland does not show the success and strength of private ownership of services. If this were so these services would not have been in public ownership in the first place. It would not require the money that is always poured into them before they are sold off on the cheap and it would not require that workers take cuts in their terms and conditions or that customers are fleeced.
The ultimate cause of privatisation is not the strength of the profit system but its weakness. Its advance across the world has its origins in the decline in profitability in private firms across the world in the 1970s and the shortage of areas where good profits could be made. This failure of the profit system to ensure economic growth led to inflation, unemployment, and the explosion of debt. Publicly owned services became an area that private firms thought they could make money out of if only the state would give it to them on the right conditions. Far from seeking to strengthen competition which is supposed to be the reason the private sector is more efficient these firms naturally seek to monopolise production and markets to boost their profits. Publicly owned services which were already monopoly suppliers are perfect for these hypocritical champions of free market competition. We have already noted the failure of profit seeking in the water service in Britain. Even with all their subsidies private firms haven’t developed the water service above what would have occurred under state ownership, they have gone on to the next target for acquisition and pursuit of the quick buck.
The reason we oppose privatisation of the water service is not because we have to pay for our water service – we already do that. It is not even because we have to pay directly instead of through taxes. If taxation was fair and was reduced to allow us to pay a fair price that was linked to income and circumstance it would be hard to object to water charges. The reason water charges are not fair is because we will be asked to pay more for a service that will be taken off us. Our contributions will not be to develop the service but to increase the salary of its top management and line the pockets of shareholders. The service will no longer be run with the object of providing a useful benefit to the community but profit for its owners. The workers will no longer be servants of the public but servants of their bosses and will therefore have to work harder and get paid less since the service they will supply will be to make as much money as possible for the owners.
No wonder that the majority of the population are opposed to privatisation and water charges, no wonder the government is attempting to hide its plans and no wonder it wants to avoid the ‘p’ word. This short pamphlet has been about trying to make the case against privatisation in order to turn opposition into effective activity that will stop it. We believe that to do this we need a mass democratic campaign because this effectively expresses the democratic view of the majority. We have argued that those most centrally and immediately involved, the water workers, should be the focus of action. They will not only have to pay the charges themselves but they also face redundancies and attacks on their working terms and conditions. More important they have the industrial muscle to make a real difference. To do this however they will need confidence and this can only come from the active support and solidarity of other public sector workers and working people more generally. This is what a mass democratic campaign offers.
We do not say that this will happen, only that it can happen. Understanding the difficulties is not to put obstacles in the way but to make our activity more realistic and therefore more likely to succeed. A mass campaign will undoubtedly have to confront and challenge apathy and resignation as well as a history of past failure to organise effectively. In doing this it will also have to challenge the existing mainstream parties whose declared opposition to water charges we have already shown to be a sham. They will either oppose such a campaign or seek to subvert it. This subversion can take place through joining us, not to take forward our strategy and tactics, but to place confidence in their ability to give us what we want without our own activity being central to the fight.
Above all a mass campaign would face the problem of sectarianism and the division of those who will suffer together if privatisation and water charges are introduced. A campaign solely based on where workers live is particularly open to this problem because many workers live in areas of only one religion. If the campaign grows quicker in one area rather than another or adopts different tactics in one area there can be little doubt that sectarians will try to paint the campaign as a plot of the ‘other side.’ If some opportunist politicians make public declarations of support for the campaign this again could be used to paint the campaign as dominated by the ‘other side.’ The answer is not to reject the declared support of the mainstream parties but to demand real action and not words. The answer is not to fear the involvement of members and supporters of political parties. The answer is to make clear from the start not only the non-sectarian but the anti-sectarian nature of the campaign. In all of this democratic organisation and free debate is the only safeguard.
It is clear that the opposition to privatisation is motivated by the pain that will be inflicted and the unfairness of the inequality that it generates. This is aggravated by the lack of democratic control that we have. While the vast majority of people are opposed to privatisation and water charges the government is showing itself to be an instrument solely of the small and already rich minority that will benefit. Above and beyond the practical need to fight this there is an obligation to learn from what is happening. What we are facing is not an isolated event and will not be last assault on our living standards or our democratic rights. Privatisation didn’t start with water and there can be little doubt that if the government is successful it will not end with it. This means we must realise that not only do we have a government that protects the interests of the rich against the wishes of the majority but that we have political parties representing us that are unable or unwilling to do anything decisive about it. Among the majority of people opposed to what is happening there is no sense that they have any real control over their government or the parties they vote for. In other words they need a party that they do control and that will therefore defend their interests.
Deeper than this must be a realisation that these interests can only be defended by a socialist programme and that the party they need must be a socialist one. Privatisation and its results are, as we have seen, the inescapable result of a system based on profit. For most people this is taken for granted because they see no alternative with which to compare and judge it. Only when a service moves from state control to private hands can we see more clearly what this means. As we have explained, the pursuit of profit results in charges, unemployment, and attacks on working conditions but this is true not only of services privatised but of the production of all the things we need and use. Since we reject privatisation we should reject the system which gives rise to it and on whose principles it runs. We then need an alternative.
The alternative is one we have already gone some way to explaining. Instead of a water service run for profit we must have one run to provide ready and sufficient access to clean water. One that does not exploit its workers but regards them as the people who are charged with providing this indispensable service and who should be rewarded and respected for it. What goes for the provision of water goes also for every other need we express – clothes, housing, health, education, entertainment and leisure. Democracy belongs not to voting for governments and parties we don’t really control. Real democracy means real control, not just over government but over every aspect of our lives. This means that in the water service socialists don’t just content themselves with opposing privatisation and calling for ownership to be retained by the state. We want the service to be controlled by the workers that deliver the service with input from those who receive it so that together they can determine how it is provided. Funding for its much needed maintenance, development and protection of the environment should come from those best able to afford it through a strongly progressive income tax on the wealthiest and charges for business which use so much of the service.
The involvement of workers and service
users in running the service is the end result of a campaign by the same
people to save it from privatisation. Those who oppose privatisation
and water charges should follow this opposition to the end. What
socialists offer is not just a way to limit the attacks working people
suffer but provide an alternative. This pamphlet provides a means
to successfully pursue the former and an argument why you should support
the latter. You have a vital role to play in building a campaign
against water privatisation and charges. A demonstration of real democracy
in action and a glimpse of a possible better alternative.