Economy featured

The future is now: rethinking public ownership

July 14, 2023

Ursula Huws reflects on the history of ‘prefigurative’ approaches and community ownership models in the UK – and how these can be used to rethink public ownership amid the current cost-of-living crisis.

Something momentous has happened, according to recent opinion polls. After 40 years of reluctantly accepting the Thatcherite mantra that there is no alternative to the market, the British public declared that they had had enough. In August 2022, Survation polling for the campaign group We Own It revealed that 69 per cent were in favour of publicly-owned water, 65 per cent for publicly-owned buses, 67 per cent for rail, 66 per cent for energy, 68 per cent for Royal Mail, and a whopping 78 per cent for the NHS. With public sentiment matching the vigour of an emboldened labour movement, there is a feeling that some of the past socialist ambitions are again political possibilities.

Of course, before demands for state-led, top-down re-nationalisation of the likes of British Rail and British Airways abound, we should consider what sort of public ownership we want. These monolithic, previously state-run enterprises are now often implicated in complex webs of cross-ownership and global value chains that exploit workers around the world. They might be difficult to reassemble and certainly hard to make accountable to local communities. So what would a truly progressive public ownership look like?

Public ownership origins

In thinking about public ownership, it is worth remembering the origins of the forms of nationalisation that were introduced after the second world war. These are surprisingly diverse. Some, such as the National Coal Board and the National Dock Labour Board (both established in 1947) were the direct result of workers’ action, albeit mediated by government takeovers during the war. Other forms of public ownership can be traced back to what is often called ‘municipal socialism’, which in practice would have been better characterised as a kind of paternalistic liberalism.

The achievements of Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham provide perhaps the most famous example. Under Chamberlain’s leadership, Birmingham Council embarked on a radical reform programme, including buying up the existing sewerage companies to form a single municipally-owned sewage system. The council also consolidated the city’s gas supply by purchasing the gas suppliers and merging them under local authority control. It also developed an early experiment in the provision of public housing, a public library and a public museum.

These strategies were adopted at a national level in 1949, when, for example, private gas companies were nationalised to form 12 regional gas boards. One of these was the main predecessor of British Gas. The reprivatised descendants of such utility companies are now raking in record profits while poor households decide whether to freeze or starve.

Clubbing together

The welfare state also drew on a rich history of mutualisation. Working-class people clubbing together to share resources for mutual support formed the origins of institutions as diverse as trade unions, building societies and consumer co-operatives. The Milk Marketing Board was a producer cooperative established in 1933 that provided a vital means of distributing this basic, perishable source of nutrition until the Tory government abolished it 60 years later, delivering this service into the stranglehold of the big supermarket chains.

In designing the NHS, Aneurin Bevan, its main architect, drew on the experiences of the Workmen’s Medical Aid Society, set up in 1890 by miners and steelworkers in his home town of Tredegar in south Wales. By the mid-1930s, the society employed its own doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists, had built its own hospital and was providing medical services to 95 per cent of local inhabitants. Other local experiments also played a prefigurative role, such as the experimental Pioneer Health Centre established by radical doctors in 1928 in Peckham. For a fee of one shilling a week, the centre provided 950 local families with medical health checks, nutritional advice and leisure and exercise facilities.

The spread of contagious diseases played a crucial role in educating the wider public on the importance of public health. The cholera epidemics famously spurred investment in sewers but they also stimulated new forms of social insurance.

Take the story of James Gillman, vicar of Holy Trinity church in Lambeth. During the 1848 epidemic Gillman ‘for three weeks … never returned to his home for fear of carrying the contagion to his family, and during this time he slept on a sofa in the surgery of the parish doctor,’ wrote the Scottish physician Edgar Ashworth Underwood in ‘The History of Cholera in Great Britain’ for the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine (March 1948). ‘His experiences led him to consider the possibility of providing a fund for stricken families on the principle of life insurance. Gillman worked out his scheme with Henry Harben, who was then the secretary of a small and struggling insurance company called the Prudential. The new scheme was based on the weekly payment of small sums from one penny upwards, and in 1850 Gillman became the Chairman of the new company. At his death in 1877 the weekly payments amounted to over two million pounds per annum.’

This may well have been one of the inspirations for the development of the system of national Insurance first introduced in Britain in 1911 and expanded by the Labour government in 1948.

New challenges

Our own Covid-19 pandemic also gave rise to a wide variety of local initiatives, at risk of being forgotten. Often organising through WhatsApp groups, or building on existing community-based initiatives, all over the country local groups came together to find innovative ways to break down social isolation, provide food and basic services to the vulnerable and tackle other issues that became visible when services were withdrawn during the lockdown.

The community and voluntary group network Just Space brought some of the lessons from these experiences together in 2022 in its Recovery Plan for London, which makes inspirational reading. Now reaching out from their London base to link up with groups in other cities, members are beginning to flesh out ways that slogans like ‘a caring city’, ‘visibility and influence for all’ and ‘priority for climate and nature’ can be made concrete. In the process, they draw attention to alternative values, revealing the inadequacies of the market. Might these too offer models for a better post-pandemic future society? In some cases, this involves reclaiming, expanding and reinventing some aspects of past models but 19th- and 20th-century solutions are no match for the 21st-century economy characterised by financialisation and rentier economics.

It is clear that top-down governmental action will need to be taken at national and international levels to curb the new corporate giants. But this should not blind us to movements from the bottom up: the extraordinarily diverse and creative ways that people are already organising to challenge their hegemony and develop prefigurative alternatives. The success of such initiatives, however modest, brings a sense of achievement to the participants, making it possible to build further, substituting hope for despair.

In local government, changes are afoot, with the international emergence of a ‘new municipalism’ aiming to bring privatised services back under public control, challenge platforms like Airbnb, and promote feminist and anti-racist agendas alongside environmental goals. In the UK, Preston is perhaps the best example with its commitment to ‘community wealth building’, putting economic development at the service of social justice and encouraging the development of worker co-operatives and municipal ownership.

Community initiatives

But many initiatives have come from lower down – below the formal administrative level. There has been a flowering of community-based initiatives since the mid-2010s in relation to food policies. In Bristol, local groups came together to create the Bristol Food Policy Council. Todmorden’s ‘incredible edible’ initiative is another example. Since the pandemic, innovative initiatives have burgeoned in many areas that seek to combine feeding the hungry with minimising waste and improving nutrition for local communities. In Islington, north London, local groups came together for a food poverty action plan, while in nearby Somerstown, the Lifeafterhummus Community Benefit Society mobilised local volunteers to provide food along with other forms of support to deprived households.

Workers are organising too. There have been challenges to platform companies, with a strike by GMB members at the Coventry Amazon warehouse and a series of local actions against Uber organised in different cities around the UK by the App Drivers and Couriers Union. There has also been a surge of interest in setting up co-operatives, including in digital industries, illustrated by the software development co-operative Outlandish, which combines work for commercial clients with projects for social change. Grassroots organisations around housing issues have also grown. The coronavirus rent crisis was the trigger for setting up the London Renters’ Union, a militant organisation that stands up to landlords, mobilising its members to resist illegal evictions as well as campaigning to force the government to extend the lockdown eviction ban and lengthen the notice period.

Perhaps because of their need for affordable spaces in which they can perform, rehearse, record music, exhibit and create their art, cultural and artistic workers have often been at the forefront of local struggles. Cultural workers were, for example, part of the broad community-based alliance in the Latin American community in Southwark to support the small traders fighting to preserve their livelihoods in the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Latin Elephant has blossomed into an organisation that combines campaigning with reaching out to other minority ethnic communities to involve them in artistic and other projects. Elsewhere, myriad street-level initiatives have emerged, often collectively organised, in music, art and performance, sometimes reappropriating urban spaces for public uses and creating venues where silenced voices can be reproduced and heard. Many of these take guerrilla forms, only visible through the graffiti traces they leave, or memories of popup performances.

While often at the cutting edge of bottom-up challenges to global capitalism and raising important political questions, creative workers may become complicit in some of the contradictions of ‘regeneration’, giving the areas they inhabit and help to transform a cool, edgy quality that opens them up for gentrification. Nevertheless, it is in such communities, and in the recognition of such contradictions, that new prefigurative models are being forged on which new forms of decommodification can be built. Socialists must still aim to seize the commanding heights but meanwhile it is important to pay attention to what is going on in the foothills.

Ursula Huws is the author of Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies, Pluto Press, 2020. This article first appeared in Issue #239, Spring 2023, ‘Flight, Fight, Remain’, accompanied by Hilary Wainwright’s introduction to prefigurative politicsSubscribe today to read more articles and support independent media.


Teaser photo credit: Leigh Court Farm at Bristol Farmers’ Market. Photo by Jane Stevenson

Ursula Huws

Ursula Huws is the author of Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies, Pluto Press, 2020.

Tags: democratic public ownership, prefigurative politics, public ownership