Stevenage Woman backs public ownership more than Labour Together thinks

Cat Hobbs
© pajorpawel/

I’ve spent the last ten years reminding people how popular public ownership is – even Conservative voters support it. So I was surprised to read in LabourList earlier this month that “Stevenage Woman” – Labour’s new target demographic according to Labour Together’s Red Shift report – doesn’t support nationalisation. From the description of her as a disillusioned 40-something woman struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, I was sure she would. Likewise, the idea that only 47% of “Workington man” voters support nationalisation didn’t ring true.

I read the whole Red Shift report and couldn’t find the raw polling data, so I contacted Labour Together directly. Mystery solved! Their polling asked: “Using the 1 to 7 scale below, where the end marked 1 means that “government should nationalise as many major industries and services as possible, bringing them into public ownership”, and the end marked 7 means that “government should privatise as many major industries and services as possible, letting private companies provide them”, where would you place your own views on this matter?”

The responses were categorised according to six voter groups identified by Labour Together: centrist liberals, activist left, patriotic left, rural right, disillusioned suburbans and English traditionalists. Nearly half of the two ‘left’ groups gave the strongest response of 1, along with nearly a fifth of centrist liberals and English traditionalists, perhaps revealing frustration with our current economy or a recognition that this question touched – if obliquely – on who should own our public services.

But what a question! Personally, if I was answering honestly, I wouldn’t have said ‘1’. I might have answered ‘4’ perhaps, or been one of those annoying respondents who rejects the question.

I want to see our railway and buses run for passengers in public ownership, as they are elsewhere in Europe. I want our water companies in public ownership, as in Scotland and France, so dividends can be reinvested in infrastructure to stop sewage. I want our monopoly energy grid in public hands so it can fast-track renewable energy connections instead of extracting huge profits. I want our 500-year-old Royal Mail proudly back in public hands, and I want private, profit-making companies out of our amazing NHS. I would also argue that we need more cooperatives, more social enterprise and economic levers to tackle long-term challenges.

But I definitely, categorically, do not want the government to “nationalise as many major industries and services as possible”. This sounds like Bolshevik Russia. Personally, I believe in a mixed economy, small business, entrepreneurial opportunities and markets wherever they can function well.

Privatisation of our public services however (the clue’s in the name) has failed for 40 years. We were promised lower costs, better services and more accountability. Instead, we have no choice but to pay more for a worse service. Institutions that should work for everyone have been asset-stripped and exploited for a quick buck.

Most people are frustrated about this. When you ask them a clear and sensible question, you get a clear and sensible answer. Our polling, carried out by Survation last summer, asked about rail, buses, water, energy, Royal Mail and the NHS. The question was: “Do you think the following services should be run in the private sector or the public sector?” The answer: a majority want public ownership. 66% want energy in public ownership, including 62% of Conservative voters. 68% of Conservative voters want water in public hands. And so on.

This confirms earlier research published by the University of Greenwich showing that public ownership policies were not responsible for Labour’s defeat in 2019. Public ownership continues to be popular across all demographics, supported by old and young, rich and poor, Leavers and Remainers and across all regions of the UK.

Our polling after the election also asked why public ownership is so popular. The top reason was that voters believe investment should go towards improving services instead of shareholder dividends. This is no surprise. The British public can see that public services aren’t the same as ‘all industries and services’. They provide vital basics we need for a decent life – things like good health and clean water. Importantly, they are often natural monopolies, where competition and markets don’t work well, or at all.

Today’s Labour Party recognises the popularity of public ownership too, in many contexts. Keir Starmer promised to deliver Great British Energy, a new energy generation company, in public ownership. Labour mayors like Andy Burnham are taking public control of bus networks. Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh has said Labour will take back rail franchises. Former South Yorkshire mayor Dan Jarvis comments that water companies should use their money “to upgrade our water infrastructure, not pay for bonuses”. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has promised “the biggest wave of insourcing in a generation”. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting agrees that NHS outsourcing is a way of basically cutting corners, cutting costs.

Of course, it’s easier to take contracts in house than to buy back assets. But it’s all doable – the Conservative government is currently taking part of the privatised National Grid into public ownership

The Red Shift report rightly says voters are distrustful of big business and that our social fabric has been “picked apart at the seams” for 13 years, with an NHS close to breaking point, the cost-of-living crisis and raw sewage in rivers. But it avoids the obvious, hugely popular solution: ending reckless cuts and wasteful privatisation.

Apparently, “Stevenage woman is, all in all, a balancer” who is “worried about… the state of public services”. Surely she wants properly funded public services, working for people not profit? Surely Labour should offer her that?

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