The right-wing Labour MP Angela Smith has written an excruciatingly poor article in the Guardian fear-mongering against Labour’s popular manifesto commitment to bring the privatised water companies in England and Wales back under national control.
The article is so poorly structured that it’s difficult to actually discern the crux of the argument, but it seems to be some kind of argument that running national water supplies as public not-for-profit enterprises (rather than profit-seeking corporate entities) risks a collapse in standards that would make Britain “the dirty man of Europe”.
The article is so riddled with basic errors, logical inconsistencies, and downright deceptions that it’s quite extraordinary that it was written by an actual MP and published in a (supposedly reputable) national newspaper, especially considering Angela Smith claims to be some kind of expert on the water industry and chairs the all-party parliamentary group on water!
The most glaring error of all in the was the way Smith referenced privatised water supplies in “Britain”, suggesting that she didn’t even know that water supplies in Scotland and Northern Ireland are nationalised. A mistake which blows a massive great hole in the main thrust of her argument: If nationalising water supplies would supposedly cause a dreadful collapse in standards, why is Scottish water doing so well, and why hasn’t Northern Ireland descended into a hellish sewer since Northern Ireland Water was renationalised in 2007?
Smith’s case that public ownership could lead to a collapse in standards further disintegrates when we take a look at Germany, where the vast majority of the water supply is provided by a network of some 6,000 publicly owned municipal water companies, only 3.5% of which are fully privatised.
Is Germany the kind of hellscape of contaminated water, overflowing sewers, and filthy rivers and beaches that Smith fear-mongers about in her article?
Of course it’s not. In fact standards in Germany are actually significantly higher than England and Wales, especially when it comes to issues like repairing leaks (7% distribution losses in Germany vs 19% in England and Wales) and municipal waste water treatment (94% treated to the highest standard as compared to just 39% in England and Wales).
Smith’s conflation of public water provision with poor standards simply doesn’t stack up, in fact the actual evidence points to the opposite: standards of largely public water supplies in Germany are way higher than the privatised water companies in England.
Another gaping flaw in Angela Smith’s argument against public ownership of the UK water supply is that chunks of it are publicly owned under the current system that she’s so desperate to defend, but just not by Britain!
When the Chinese sovereign wealth fund purchased a huge stake in Thames Water in 2012 the company was essentially part nationalised under the control of the Chinese state.
In the 4th paragraph of her article Smith admits the truth; that “EU regulations have played a crucial role in raising standards”, which blasts another gaping hole in her pro-privatisation argument.
The reality is that water company bosses have extracted £billions upon £billions to pay out in shareholder dividends and bloated executive salaries, all of which could have been spent on repairing leaks and treating more than a paltry 39% of waste water to the cleanest standard.
Water supplies don’t have to compete for “scarce government resources” against “schools and hospitals” as Smith claims. They raise their revenues through water rates in the same way as private providers do, but then save huge amounts of money by not paying out £billions in shareholder dividends and bloated executive salaries.
If a Labour government nationalised the water supply and then set about trying to raid the money raised through water rates to pay for other government services there’d rightly be uproar about it, but that’s not what they’re proposing to do at all. It’s just dishonest propaganda from someone with an ideological axe to grind.
handing the water supply over to private profiteers comes at a cost of £2.3 billion per year to water rate payers.
If the water supply was returned to not-for-profit public ownership this £2.3 billion could be returned to water rate payers through reduced water bills, or it could be used to fund much-needed infrastructure improvements to bring our standards up closer to the standards in Germany.
When profit is the primary motive, stuff like improving water quality and dealing with leaks inhibit the profit rate.
Privately owned water companies have a primary duty to create profits for their shareholders. If the fines from failing water quality standards or widespread leaks are higher than the cost of improving standards then the changes will be made, however if the fines are lower, then they’ll be written off as a cost of doing business.
This means that any improvements that have happened since privatisation have happened despite the private water companies, not because of them.
Public opinion is massively in favour of water renationalisation, so Anglea Smith isn’t just arguing against the Labour Party leadership and the Labour Party members who support the Labour commitment to renationalise the water companies, she’s criticising the vast majority of the public too.
Ideology over fact
At one point in the article Smith even says that “when it comes to ensuring we have clean water and a safe marine environment we cannot allow ideology to be the master of fact”, which takes an awful lot of brass neck from someone who is so blatantly prepared to ignore and/or misrepresent inconvenient facts (as detailed above) in order to grind her pro-privatisation axe.
We’ve all seen countless examples of this kind of Orwellian reality-reversing propaganda from the Tories, but it’s still quite shocking to see it from a Labour Party MP.
One of the most extraordinary things about Angela Smith’s article is the fact that she omits to mention that her husband works in the private water industry, and that the all-party parliamentary group on water that she chairs is funded by the private water lobby.
Even if Smith refused to admit the fact that she’s essentially just a lobbyist for the private water companies embedded within the Labour Party and parliament, the Guardian should at least make Smith’s conflicts of interest known to their readers.
Problems for Corbyn
This article isn’t just proof that one of the most high profile Labour right-wingers is such a lame duck that she can’t even write an article about her own supposed area of expertise without a mass of errors, logical inconsistencies, and outright deceptions. It’s also a demonstration of the fact that Jeremy Corbyn would face serious problems were he to become Prime Minister.
When the Labour Party was controlled by the right-wing faction of the party between 1994 and 2010 numerous pro-austerity, pro-privatisation neoliberals like Angela Smith were parachuted into Labour seats. This means that even if Corbyn won a majority at the next election, he’d struggle to implement his manifesto commitments like nationalising the water supply, creating a National Education Service, and scrapping Tory austerity dogma as a result of ideological opposition from the rump of self-serving, right-wing orthodox neoliberals embedded within his own party.
Nobody ever said it would be easy
Nobody ever claimed that returning the Labour Party to its democratic socialist principles would be easy, but just because a job is difficult doesn’t make it not worth doing.
The UK has suffered four decades of unbroken neoliberal rule since 1979, resulting in an absolute mess of inequality, stagnating wages, failing public services, collapsing productivity, ruinous austerity dogma, and now the Brexit shambles.
Something has to change because “more of the same” simply won’t cut it any more.
Jeremy Corbyn has outlined a path towards Scandinavian-style democratic socialism, which is obviously unappealing to right-wing orthodox neoliberals like Angela Smith, but the other alternative is the kind of hard-right frenzy of deregulation, ultranationalism and deliberate disaster capitalism envisaged by the Brextremists.
We’re facing a political choice between maintaining existing standards on workers’ rights, environmental laws, food standards, equal rights legislation, and consumer protections alongside a move back towards public ownership of vital state services and infrastructure, or a fanatically right-wing deregulation frenzy.
And by publicly fear-mongering about Labour’s democratic socialist policies, Angela Smith is acting as a useful idiot for the hard-right Brextremists.
But then the suspicion remains that when it comes to issues like austerity dogma, wage repression, imposing barriers to social mobility, and privatisation mania, numerous right-wing Labour MPs actually have far more in common with the fanatical Tory Brextremists than they do with the Labour leadership, with Labour Party members, and even with the general public.