By Dave Kirk
This pandemic has proved Labour’s 2019 manifesto pledge of free broadband, provided as a public service, was entirely right.
Labour advocated providing every household in the country by 2030 with free broadband. To do this they planned to nationalise BT open reach and set up a new publicly-owned and accountable “British Broadband” to build the infrastructure and provide the service. This was to be paid for partly by a new tax on the giant online corporations like Google, Facebook and Amazon.
Launching this policy, Jeremy Corbyn said “the service would become our treasured public institution for the 21st century”. He also said: “What was once a luxury is now an essential utility. I think it’s too important to be left to the corporations”.
This was obviously attacked by the Tories. Johnson called it a “crazed communist scheme”. As communists or radical socialists, we advocated public ownership and workers’ control of the entire economy. Labour’s policy and broader manifesto wasn’t anything like that; it was social democratic. Other capitalist countries have publicly-owned broadband.
The CBI, the right wing press attacked this policy relentlessly.
After the election defeat people on the right of the Labour party attacked the policy too, and suggested it was one of the reasons for the defeat.
There are legitimate left-wing criticisms to be made of how this and other policies were handled by the party. It would have been much better if the policy had been developed democratically through discussions in the party and decisions at conference; and been in place for months or years beforehand so activists and Labour candidates could make the argument on the doorstep and in the media and let it sink in to people’s consciousness. It was a snap election, but there is a wider issue there about how Labour under Corbyn made policy and campaigned (or didn’t).
There is also an issue of more basic things Labour didn’t say or wasn’t clear on, like free bus travel or reversing all benefit cuts. But that is a very different matter from saying the broadband policy was somehow too radical.
In this crisis now, when we are depending so much on Skype and Zoom calls, video conferencing and many of us are working from home you can see how this policy would make a huge difference to people’s lives. Good internet access can help people’s mental health and general wellbeing as well as allow people to remain politically active. A free, more reliable service would make a difference.
Our class needs free, publicly-provided broadband. We need to fight to ensure this remains Labour policy, including by sending motions to the next Labour conference.
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• For the 2013 pamphlet produced by telecoms workers in the CWU that partly inspired Labour’s 2019 policy, Telecommunications: the case for public ownership, see here.