Yesterday, Labour's shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna - tipped as a possible future leader by some - announced that Labour would keep Royal Mail in private ownership if, as is likely, the Tory-led government pushes through privatisation before 2015.
Writing for the Huffington Post, Umunna argued:
"I have been very clear that we are not in a position to pledge to renationalise the Royal Mail if we get into government in 2015. I do not know how much Royal Mail shares will be trading at in May 2015, so I do not know how much it would cost to renationalise. No credible future Business Secretary would therefore make such a pledge"What struck me was how woefully unaware Umunna seems of Britain's long history of nationalisations. But, first some good news to be read into Umunna's otherwise depressing statement: if Labour won't nationalise because of cost, then rail renationalisation is on the cards - since the franchises can be brought back under public control as they expire, cost-free. Come on Maria Eagle, you can do it!
But I digress. Labour has of course already said it will stick to the Tory spending plans that it criticises as being flawed, and therefore Mr Umunna is unable to make spending commitments, unless funded by some other cut (like Trident perhaps?).
But still, governments have rarely used current expenditure accounts for nationalisations. Even the colossal shovelling of public money at the banking system in 2008/09 was done through an arcane stand-alone Bank of England fund.
The largest swathe of nationalisations occurred under Clement Attlee's 1945 government, and included coal, steel, electricity, gas, electricity, railways, road haulage - alongside a massive expansion of publically-owned social security, public health, education and housing.
Now you might say, 'that's all well and good, but Labour will come to office in 2015 with a very different inheritance. Didn't you hear Liam Byrne? There's no money left!'. To which the reply is 'I never listen to Liam Byrne. Why on earth would anyone? But I see your point, Attlee only took office after six years of war, with the country's infrastructure and labour force decimated, and with a national debt nearly four times what it is today. But I just think maybe today's Labour could manage one relatively small renationalisation...'
Attlee's government also reduced the national debt during its term in office. 'But how?' you ask, 'when they must have spent billions on all those nationalisations'. Attlee's government largely exchanged shares for Treasury bonds - sustainable low cost funding of the purchase of assets that often generated revenue in return (Royal Mail made a profit of £430m last year) or were steered in the public interest to underpin economic growth and to meet social need ('meet social need' aka 'predistribution'). Another question Mr Umunna should be asking is why would any government wanting to reduce the debt, sell off a steady income stream?
But of course saying now that if the Tories privatise Royal Mail, Labour will renationalise will drive away the vultures circling over Royal Mail. Who would pay for shares now, knowing they'll be exchanged in less than 18 months. Labour committing itself now to renationalisation in 2015 could scupper the move entirely.
All is not lost if Labour waits. The inevitable result of Labour committing itself to renationalisation next year would be to reduce the share price of a privatised Royal Mail. Look at the impact of Ed Miliband's modest price freeze announcement for energy companies. This would make even a cash buyback considerably cheaper.
The Attlee government did something very simple, it told the electorate what it would do - boldly - and it won a landslide. Until it finally announced some policies at its conference last week, today's Labour was barely ahead in the polls, against a deeply unpopular government. It went from being level to four points ahead before, to 8 to 11 points ahead after the announcement to freeze energy prices and repeal the bedroom tax.
There's a lesson there. One is that, if Labour wants to look 'credible' it shouldn't oppose privatisation only until it happens. That's rather like being a vegetarian between meals.
UPDATE (05/10/13): It is now estimated that Royal Mail will be valued at around £3 billion for the sell-off. Chuka Umunna has described this as "on the cheap", stating that two of Royal Mail's sites in London are alone worth £1.5 billion - and that these sites are at risk of being sold off once the shares are sold to private investors.
Such asset-stripping is common in privatisation - and occurred following the privatisations of the railways and of the water boards. If such asset-stripping occurs, then Labour should renationalise in 2015 by compensating shareholders on the basis of the valuation of the company at time of privatisation, minus the value of any assets sold off. If they can privatise on the cheap, we can renationalise on the cheap!