Internet is a utility

Broadband and ‘communist schemes’

Despite Corbyn’s retreats, we call for a Labour vote, writes David Shearer of Labour Party Marxists.

Labour’s manifesto contains, as expected, a commitment to provide full-fibre broadband free of charge to every household by 2030.

The manifesto, published on November 21, pledges to replace copper cables, etc, with fibre-optic, which will allow speeds of around 10 times faster than even the current allegedly “ultrafast” connections. Only around 8% of UK premises are currently connected to full-fibre, compared to 98% in South Korea, for example. Labour estimates that the new broadband programme will cost £20 billion, to be partly financed by a tax on tech companies.

Of course, the Tories have condemned this as yet another example of Labour’s ‘irresponsible’ spending commitments, but they, along with substantial sections of business, say that it also points to the party’s continued attachment to ‘outdated’ nationalisation schemes - it will involve taking over BT’s Openreach broadband division. And what is this about providing it free of charge? It was this that prompted Boris Johnson to condemn the proposal as a “crazed communist scheme”.

As for culture secretary Nicky Morgan, she said it was a “fantasy plan” - Corbyn will “promise anything, regardless of the cost to taxpayers and whether it can actually be delivered”. She did not actually say why it cannot be delivered. Although the Centre for Economics and Business Research said that such a programme would hugely “boost productivity” and provide half a million extra jobs, the Internet Service Providers Association declared it would “fundamentally jeopardise” more than 600 companies.

For her part, Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the prospect of “mass nationalisations” under Labour would “frighten off investors”. Of course, compared to the post-war programme implemented by Labour - and maintained by subsequent administrations, both Labour and Conservative - the state-owned sector will remain decidedly small. True, Labour has come out for the renationalisation of water and rail services, but what about gas, electricity, local bus services, Royal Mail, as well as BT’s entire telecommunication system?

What did privatisation actually mean in practice? Well, water, gas and electricity are typical. In each case rival companies are making use of the same national facilities and network provided by the former single, state-owned company. As for the railways, private companies are running the trains, but they are all allegedly competing with each other by sharing British Rail’s original lines and stations. Privatisation was supposed to mean greater efficiency, but that has hardly been the case with the railways, as everyone knows.

Then there is the national health service. Because the idea of free healthcare, available to all, is so overwhelmingly popular, the Tories claim that they cherish the NHS as much as anyone else - although, of course, many subsidiary services have actually been privatised. And Labour has also pledged to provide free dental checks for all - over the recent period the majority have had to pay for it. This too has been condemned by the Tories - after all, many people ‘can afford it’, so why shouldn’t they have to pay? Obviously you could say the same thing about healthcare in general, but for the time being they are keeping quiet about that one.

In a sense, however, Johnson is right to describe the provision of free services to all as “communist”: ie, the needs of one and all being met collectively. And, in this day and age, the internet is a very basic need, upon which the entire population depends, at least indirectly. Even under the current system of capital, it has become almost as essential as the air we breathe (it goes without saying that, if the bourgeoisie could think of a way of making a profit out of that, it would do so).

So Labour’s plans for free broadband for all should be unreservedly supported. However, it clearly remains the case that, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the party is committed merely to delivering reforms under capitalism. Corbyn himself went out of his way to assure the CBI at its conference last week that he was “not anti-business”. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claim that Labour “wants to overthrow capitalism” is the opposite of the truth.

Class force

Despite Corbyn’s insistence on the November 19 TV debate with Johnson that he is on the side of the many thousands who are struggling, while “tax cuts are handed to the rich”, he constantly avoids expressing such a sentiment in clear class terms, let alone advocating a society run by the working class. When he says he is “not anti-business” (or anti-capitalist), we should believe him. Yes, Labour might raise corporation tax back up to 2010 levels, but “no higher” - that was the year when the Tories’ David Cameron took over from Labour’s rightwing leader, Gordon Brown.

In that TV debate the final question posed to both Corbyn and Johnson was about which political leader they admired most in the world. His reply was “the UN general secretary”, who is “trying to bring the world together”. Not much class differentiation in that one.

In my view, Corbyn did come over better - in general he answered more precisely and kept to the point, whereas Johnson went on and on about Brexit and would not stop speaking when the presenter tried to move on to the next question. He kept stressing how Corbyn was refusing to state which way he would campaign in Labour’s proposed second Brexit referendum, and on that one he was certainly right - no matter how many times he was asked, Corbyn repeated the line that he would put the newly negotiated deal to the public and let them decide between that and ‘remain’. After all, irrespective of how brilliant the new deal is, the Labour establishment will side with the remainers, so how can he come out for ‘leave’ in any shape or form?

Earlier the presenter mentioned Labour’s alleged anti-Semitism problems - she quoted the Board of Deputies of British Jews to the effect that Labour was “a cesspit of anti-Semitism”. Instead of condemning this outright lie, Corbyn came out with the usual stuff about Labour being opposed to all forms of racism and acting forcefully against those in the party who express it in any way.

A snap YouGov poll afterwards found that, after removing the ‘don’t knows’, 51% thought Johnson had performed better and 54% that he came over as “more prime ministerial”, as well as “more likable”. But Corbyn was considered “more trustworthy” by 45%, as against 40% for Johnson, while 59% (against 25% for Johnson) thought the Labour leader was “more in touch” with “ordinary people”.1 But the Tories are, for the moment at least, still maintaining their clear lead in all the polls.

It goes without saying that we will vote Labour on December 12. But, irrespective of the result, the fight for the total transformation of Labour into a united front of all organisations committed to the working class will continue.

  1. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2019/11/19/who-won-itv-general-election-debate.↩︎