The British Steel crisis, says Labour for a Socialist Europe in a statement calling for public ownership of the steel industry, “is yet another reminder of the sheer irrationality of Brexit, attempting to reverse important elements of the integration of the European and global economy – even when that means putting vast numbers of livelihoods and whole communities at risk.” And “of the irrationality of a capitalist system where decisions about livelihoods, communities and vital social production are placed into the hands of a tiny number of profit-seekers.”
British Steel was purchased in 2016 for £1 by private equity company Greybull Capital. As Nil Pratley explained in the Guardian: “Greybull[‘s] past calamities include Monarch Airlines and electricals chain Comet...
“When Monarch failed under Greybull’s ownership in 2017, taxpayers were landed with a £60m bill for repatriating 100,000 passengers. The private equity firm, by contrast, emerged as top creditor in the administration. There are questions of trust and credibility…The firm is charging interest on loans to British Steel at 9.6%, a princely rate.”
The government loaned Greybull £120 million only a few weeks ago to resolve its crisis. British Steel’s collapse into administration came after the bosses demanded even more.
The main steelworkers’ union, the Blairite-led Community, has simply repeated over and over that something needs to be done to save jobs. It does not mention public ownership. It calls for Greybull to get out of the way for a new private owner. Community calls for government action to “support our steel industry”. That means channelling money towards its private owners — mainly by buying more British as against foreign steel.
The combination of pro-capitalism and nationalism which Community displays so strongly exists throughout the labour movement. Unite, which also organises some steelworkers, argues that Britain’s steel industry should not be allowed to go under because of its “strategic importance to UK plc”. Both Unite and Labour do, however, call for some element of public ownership. Read further and this is always qualified with “a public stake”, “if an agreement cannot be struck”, “until a buyer can be found” and so on.
The history of Britain’s steel industry since World War 2, repeatedly pushed back and forth between private and state ownership, but always run in a straightforwardly capitalist way, is a reminder that “nationalisation”, “public ownership” and so on are very elastic concepts. Public ownership is generally preferable to private, but it is not inherently socialist or even progressive, pro-working class, democratic... It depends on how it is done and organised.
The labour movement should push for public ownership of the whole of British Steel and indeed of the whole steel industry as a good in itself, not to bail out or clear the path for various capitalists, but to undermine capital’s power in the interests of the workers, their communities, and the wider working class. As Labour for a Socialist Europe puts it: “Instead of further state handouts, or the brokering of some new capitalist deal, both likely on the backs of workers and communities, British Steel should be taken into full public ownership under workers’ and democratic control – not as a back up if no other deal is possible, but as the best option.
“The industry could then provide secure, well-paid socially useful and ecologically sustainable jobs within the steel industry. A broader demand for the expansion of public ownership where job losses and closures are announced should also be supported by the labour movement to help guarantee and extend jobs and community resources, and provide vital services to society in place of profit-driven gambling and exploitation.”
The steel industry is essential — not only to its thousands of workers, not only to many thousands more who rely on it, not only to the existing public sector which is its largest buyer — but also to the possibility of ambitious public projects like a radical Green New Deal. We should call for public ownership and democratic control of steel as part of an emergency plan to combat climate change, regenerate deprived areas, create jobs and attack inequality. A plan that needs to be organised and coordinated internationally.