This Week in the Media: Privatisation Isn’t Working; Unsuccessful Gambler Recoups Money From Bookmakers

March 7, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, recently reported a 40 per cent rise in annual operating profits to £1.95 billion.

Not bad for a year where they allegedly had no choice but to hike up gas and electricity bills by 15 per cent.

Of course, it’s difficult to blame the managers of Centrica for seeking to maximise profit for their shareholders. That is their job and they can hardly be expected to deliberately do it badly to avoid courting public outrage.

But, when taken together with water companies who are willing and able to rake in their own fat profits but are either unwilling or unable to mend leaking pipes, it’s becoming clear that the post-privatisation regulation of public utilities is not working effectively for the public.

Unfortunately, ministers haven’t got anything much to say about this and the mainstream left currently has nothing to add to the non-discussion beyond imploring business people to be a bit less greedy.

What the capital-sozzled “new” Labour Party is avoiding is entertaining even the faintest notion that they might consider the possibility that there might be a renewed case for public or co-operative ownership of what used to be the public utilities.

For those of us with a belief in what works, it would almost worth making the case just for the spectacle of the privatisers attempting to demonstrate that privatised gas, water and electricity has genuinely been cheaper and more efficient than it used to be.

In the – hopefully continuing – absence of severe economic crisis or likely enemy occupation, the chances of any of these services ever being subject to direct renationalisation by central government are, realistically, extremely small.

But the possibilities for national co-operative or not-for-profit ownership models or local democratic ownership are much bigger.

Of course, mutual or co-operative ownership models are not, in themselves, a guarantee that organisations will be run in the interests of the people. There are, after all, mutual organisations delivering regressively exclusive private health care and elitist education.

But a genuinely renewed left can and should make the case that the structures and ownership of a service or a organisation do have an effect on what that organisation ends up doing and in whose interests it ends up acting.

The alternative is to just carry on politely asking big business to be a bit nicer.

There is at least one other way to challenge business power beyond the political arena and begging, but it’s not a positive one.

I’m not a fan of bookmakers, but I confess to being slightly bemused by the recent court case which saw compulsive gambler Graham Calvert suing William Hill for letting him lose over £2 million.

The case is based on the fact that Mr Calvert is a “pathological gambler” and that he had asked the company to close his account under a “self-exclusion scheme.”

He subsequently asked them to open two new accounts and placed £3.5 million worth of bets, losing over £2 million in the process.

There are other places where it may be more appropriate to debate whether or not “pathological gambler” really is a medical condition, but, even if – for the sake of Mr Calvert’s argument – we accept that it is, his position seems to hover somewhere between the bizarre and the ridiculous.

I don’t think that it’s possible to have progressive society unless you have as a basis the belief that consenting adults should take a significant level of responsibility for their own actions.

Of course, private companies or governments can and should be held accountable for the way that they deliberately or negligently influence those actions.

So it seemed reasonable to me when smokers in the US sued tobacco companies who’d helped kick-start their addictions by putting out adverts suggesting that their products would make the customers fit and healthy rather than condemning them to gruesome terminal illness.

Even if bookmakers did actively promote the idea that gambling is fundamentally a win-win activity, it would be difficult for customers to argue that they hadn’t known better.

But this isn’t what Mr Calvert’s arguing. He claims that illness made him gamble. Whether or not this is true, it is questionable whether it ought to be possible to get as far as court with an argument that seems to be based on making little or no distinction between the responsibilities of a bookmaker and a community mental health team.”

This article first appeared in the Morning Star newspaper.

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This post was written by David Floyd

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