• Privatised Water Blues

    Nick Cohen’s excellent piece in last Sunday’s Observer on the private water companies struck a chord with me. In September 1989, during the passage of the privatisation legislation and when I was Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, I was asked by Ann Taylor (who was leading for the Opposition in the Standing Committee) to write a piece for the Financial Times setting out Labour’s position. The aim was to give potential investors pause when they came to subscribe for shares in the flotation to come.

    I duly did so, explaining (as I recall in my subsequently published memoirs) that an incoming Labour government would expect a privatised water industry to see “its first responsibility to investment in a safe and efficient industry, and secondly, to maintaining fair prices to consumers. Only once these two needs had been met would there be any room for private dividends.” I refrained from saying anything about returning the industry to public ownership,since it was clear that this commitment was being quietly dropped.

    I subsequently made a similar point in an interview with Jonathan Dimbleby in On the Record and was astonished to find myself repudiated by Neil Kinnock the following day, and the subject of some vitriolic press treatment, apparently engineered by the Labour Party’s Press Office, including a half-page article in the Sunday Times, portraying me as a Jekyll and Hyde figure, complete with graphic drawings showing my face being transfigured under the influence of a full moon!

    It is little comfort to find that my recommended order of priorities has been vindicated by subsequent experience.

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