The Al Jazeera ‘Labour Files’ documentary series exposed afresh the rampant racism and war on democracy of the Labour right, both to sabotage the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and to purge the left from the party under Keir Starmer.
Now a new episode sees Martin Forde – the barrister Starmer reluctantly commissioned to investigate the report’s allegations and whose findings have been ignored by the Labour right and their media allies ever since – respond to the programme’s evidence and conclusions:
We need to be out there in the streets, taking every opportunity we can to hold this government to account and linking up all the forms of resistance taking place.
As well as the large numbers of people taking industrial action to try and secure decent wages, there are renters campaigning against eviction, people with disabilities campaigning to ensure their benefits are not cut, climate justice campaigners and a whole range of social movements saying no to the Tories’ agenda.
So, what way forward for our movement? The solution is deepening this resistance at all levels, and that means joining demonstrations, occupations and the picket lines — and it also means discussing the alternatives we need around a socialist policy programme.
This programme must be based on redistributive taxation that will fund our public services and address the poverty and inequality that scar our society. And it must include securing stable, long-term investment in our infrastructure and in our people — including through extending public ownership — so we can mobilise our whole economy to tackle the challenges ahead and the rising challenge of climate change.
Yet public ownership is opposed passionately by the Conservative government, while the leader of the opposition has said he is “not in favour” of it – despite his election on a platform that committed to “bring rail, mail, water and energy into public ownership to end the great privatisation rip-off and save you money on your fares and bills”.
Public ownership is on the media’s radar, too. When Labour leader Keir Starmer announced his policy to freeze bills this week, he was asked why he wouldn’t also nationalise energy, replying that: “In a national emergency where people are struggling to pay their bills … the right choice is for every single penny to go to reducing those bills.”
But so long as energy remains privatised, every single penny won’t. Billions of pennies will keep going to shareholders instead.
The energy market was fractured under the mass privatisations of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s. It contains three sectors: producers or suppliers (those that produce energy), retailers (those that sell you energy), and distribution or transmission (the infrastructure that transports energy to your home).
It is important to bear this in mind when we’re talking about taking energy into public ownership. We need to be clear about what we want in public ownership and why.
By 2019, Labour had a detailed plan on how to do this – worked up by the teams around then shadow business and energy secretary Rebecca Long Bailey and then shadow chancellor John McDonnell. The plan is not the only way, but it illustrates what exists and how one could go about re-establishing a public energy ecosystem, run for people not profit.
The recent TUC report shows the cost of nationalising the ‘Big 5’ energy retailers – British Gas, E.ON, EDF, Scottish Power and Ovo – to be £2.8bn, which would go on buying all the companies’ shares. That’s a lot of money, equivalent to more than the annual budget of the Sure Start programme in 2009/10 (its peak year). But it’s a one-off cost, not an annual one.
And it’s not like the current privatised system doesn’t have its costs: since June 2021, the UK government has spent £2.7bn bailing out 28 energy companies that collapsed because they put short-term profits ahead of long-term stability – companies like Bulb Energy. We have spent billions of pounds already to get nothing in return. So £2.8bn is not a large amount of money to pay to gain these assets, rather than just bailing them out.
The big energy retail companies made £23bn in dividends between 2010 and 2020 according to Common Wealth, and £43bn if you include share buy-backs. What you choose to do with that surplus in public ownership is another matter: you could use it to invest in new clean energy or to lower bills or fund staff pay rises, rather than subject your workers to fire-and-rehire practices as British Gas did last year.
Labour’s previous plan also involved taking the distribution networks – the National Grid – into public ownership. This would end the profiteering at this level, too – with £13bn paid out in dividends over the five years prior to 2019. As Long Bailey said at the time, we need “public driven and coordinated action, without which we simply will not be able to tackle climate change”. Like previous nationalisations, the purchase of the grid and distribution networks could be achieved by swapping shares for government bonds. By international accounting standards, the cost is fiscally neutral as the state gains a revenue-generating asset, which more than pays for the bond yield.
The final part of the plan – and the most complicated – is production and supply. It would be impossible to nationalise the oilfields of Saudi Arabia or Qatar – and for good reasons we should want to leave fossil fuels in the ground, anyway, rather than contest their ownership.
And so what Labour proposed in 2019 was a mass investment in new renewable energy generation projects, with the public sector taking a stake and returning profits to the public. For example, under the ‘People’s Power Plan’, we proposed 37 new offshore wind farms with a 51% public stake, delivering 52GW alone by 2030, equivalent to 38 coal power stations. There were additional proposals for onshore wind, solar, and tidal schemes, as part of a 10-year £250bn Green Transformation Fund, which included other schemes like the Warm Homes insulation initiative.
Labour’s new shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has promised a similar level of investment – a £28bn a year climate investment pledge.
Any surplus energy would then be sold on international markets, with a People’s Power Fund – a sort of sovereign wealth fund – to deliver public investment in local communities’ social infrastructure: a genuine levelling-up fund, perhaps.
Many people will say this can’t be done, but of course it has been before. The 1945 Attlee government nationalised energy and successive Conservative governments – including those of Churchill, MacMillan and Heath – were happy to have a nationalised asset. Harold MacMillan famously accused Margaret Thatcher of “selling off the family silver” when she privatised state industries.
When I was born in 1979, the National Coal Board, British Gas and British Petroleum were all publicly-owned or majority publicly-owned companies. Between them, they were the major suppliers of our energy. Our gas bills came from British Gas and our electricity bills from our regional electricity board (in my case Seeboard, the South Eastern Electricity Board), and coal and oil fuelled our power stations.
The regional electricity boards had been brought into being by the Attlee government’s Electricity Act 1947, when electricity companies were forcibly merged into regional area boards and nationalised. The Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 and the Gas Act 1948 had together brought energy into public ownership.
Seeboard was privatised in 1990, and later became part of EDF Energy – ironically, the nationalised French energy company, whose profits from the UK’s stupidity are used to subsidise French consumers.
The French government has now fully nationalised EDF (previously it was 84% publicly owned), and household energy bills rose by just 4% this year – compared to over 50% in the UK and a forecast 200% by January 2023.
If Starmer doesn’t want to listen to me (or his own commitments from 2020), perhaps emulating the centrist Emmanuel Macron in this instance would be palatable?
From the depletion of fish stocks to the burning of the Amazon, profit has proved a failed regulator for use of our natural resources
In his later years, Robin Cook argued: “The market is incapable of respecting a common resource such as the environment, which provides no price signal to express the cost of its erosion nor to warn of the long-term dangers of its destruction.”
From the depletion of fish stocks to the burning of the Amazon, profit has proved a failed regulator for use of our natural resources. The market has also failed to decarbonise at pace, or to end the scourge of fuel poverty.
On the media this week, shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband said Labour is “continuing to look at what the right long-term solution is for our energy system”. It is up to all of us to campaign for that solution to be public ownership – whether that’s from within the Labour Party (like me) or from the outside.
LABOUR MPs Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott handed a letter to the governor of HMP Belmarsh today, demanding permission for a meeting with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
The two socialist MPs joined Mr Assange’s fiancee Stella Moris outside the prison to deliver the letter on behalf of a parliamentary working group.
Mr Assange remains locked up at the Covid-hit south London prison pending an appeal after he beat an extradition case brought by the US.
The letter is signed by 20 parliamentarians including former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, MPs Bell Ribeiro-Addy, John McDonnell, Zarah Sultana, Caroline Lucas, Claudia Webbe and members of the House of Lords.
Julian Assange’s case should’ve ended as soon as a UK judge denied his extradition to the US, Jeremy Corbyn, former Labour leader, told RT as he joined other MPs to demand a meeting with the WikiLeaks founder in a London prison.
Corbyn described Assange as “somebody that has stood up for truth around the world. He’s helped us to understand what happened in Guantanamo Bay and so many places around in the world where the US military has done terrible things. We think that he’s a journalist of distinction.”
When a man lies often enough, every now and then, something he says will turn out to be true. And so it happened with Boris Johnson. He said our country would be “record-breaking” in this pandemic and it has been, twice over: at one point, the UK had achieved the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita in the world; and it also suffered the worst fall in GDP in Europe.
How have the Prime Minister and his Cabinet fared when it comes to telling the truth about the greatest disaster our country has experienced since the Second World War?
Privately, radio and television journalists will reel off what they think are the most outrageous lies of this Government’s Coronavirus catastrophe – how it claimed that it was simply ‘following the science’ or ‘protecting the NHS and care homes’ or awarding contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) sensibly.
Back in autumn 2019, I condemned Boris Johnson as a known liar in the annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival. A number of my colleagues in broadcasting disapproved strongly even though they did not dispute the accuracy of my statement. That the Prime Minister is a notorious liar is accepted among journalists in the UK across the political spectrum.
Johnson was sacked by The Times early on in his career for an untruthful front-page story which he misattributed to his own godfather. As the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels’ correspondent between 1989 and 1994, he regularly disseminated ‘Euromyths’. He was sacked in 2004 as the Conservative Party’s vice-chairman and Shadow Arts Minister for dishonestly assuring the then leader Michael Howardthat reports he had had an affair with a columnist were an “inverted pyramid of piffle”.
Yet, almost all broadcast journalists believe that they should not use the ‘L’ word about Johnson.
Why? Firstly, it’s rude and we’re British. Secondly, they fear that the public could thereby think we have lost our impartiality. Well, that’s a risk we have to take. I am indeed not impartial between truth and lies. The public doesn’t have the wherewithal to research the facts about politicians’ statements and therefore judge accurately whether they are telling the truth. They rely on us for that.
Ministers have made untrue statements over and over again and it has worked for them. A significant proportion of the population has accepted these statements. This is partly because they sympathised with a Government dealing with a plague without precedent for which it could not be blamed. But this is also because broadcast journalists have not said that we have been lied to in significant ways.
Back in 2019, I was complaining about Johnson’s lies concerning EU rules on condoms and kippers. What halcyon days they were, pre-pandemic, when a politician lying about fish seemed like a big deal. Now, he and his Cabinet lie about life and death. Previously, his lies were specific. Now, they are are so vast in their ambition that they create a parallel universe.
In the past, lying politicians were held to account on television and radio. They were not named as liars, but their statements were analysed forensically in lengthy interviews. Not any more.
During the Coronavirus crisis, we have not seen Boris Johnson putting himself up for the sort of grilling to which, for example, Margaret Thatcher subjected herself over the Falklands. Johnson and senior Cabinet ministers have failed to appear on Newsnight or Channel Four News, the two programmes with the time to carry out in-depth interviews.
A leading broadcast journalist told me: “They just don’t believe in accountability. In one of the great crises of modern times, where is the major interview with the Prime Minister? I can’t think of a time when a Prime Minister in a crisis has put himself up so little. There is no proper scrutiny. It’s a complete contempt for accountability.”
This is an edited extract from ‘Populism, the Pandemic and the Media: Journalism in the Age of Brexit, COVID, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’ to be published on 24 June 2021 by Abramis. Dorothy Byrne is a television journalist and producer. She was formerly editor-at-large at Channel 4 Television, where she previously served as head of news and current affairs