THE BIG INTERVIEW: Labour MP John McDonnell outline his vision for a free, public broadband service

VISION: Labour Party MP John McDonnell

By VIEW editor Brian Pelan

My interview with Labour MP John McDonnell took a while to set up, but it was worth the wait as the former shadow chancellor wasted no time, when our Zoom interview commenced, in arguing for a radical transformation of digital access in the United Kingdom.

The Labour Party’s policy, in their manifesto for the 2019 general election, called for fast and free full fibre-broadband for all by bringing parts of BT into public ownership and creating a new British broadband public service.

McDonnell didn’t hesitate when I asked did he still support this policy despite the defeat of the Labour Party in the election? “I absolutely still agree,” he replied. He referred to discussions in the Labour Party before the election about their digital nationalisation policy.”

“What we found was that private companies were delivering very poorly. So we looked at other models, including South Korea, and we found that they had the most extensive and widest coverage in terms of broadband connections. What they did was to set up a public company, fund it, and roll it out. So the idea that we came up with, by working with the trade unions and a number of experts in community groups, was to have a public company owned by the people rather than putting money into private companies that will cream some it off in profits. And also, why don’t we try to ensure that we have it as a universal basic service because it’s so important to people in their lives now?

“I think if you’re going to have a decent quality of life, you need access to a roof over your heads, health service care, education, and digital connectivity. I think those key aspects of life are essential.

“We got pilloried by sections of the media, and obviously, the Conservatives attacked us. But when we polled it, we were getting 70 per cent support for it as a concept.”

McDonnell laughed when I reminded him that media outlets, who were hostile to the nationalisation policy, described it as ‘broadband communism’.

In 1984, the Thatcher-led government privatised British Telecom. I asked McDonnell did he still regard this decision as wrong? “Yes, I do. My view is that there are certain elements within our economy that are best in public hands and are best provided not for profit. My own view is that transport is better in public hands, rail and buses are better in public hands. They can be properly regulated. And you will operate them on the basis of need, rather than just profit. I think that’s the same with elements about communication as well. I think the privatisation of BT was a mistake.”

‘By providing people with free access to broadband, as well as access to equipment as well, I think it would help us to tackle some of those educational inequalities that we now experience within our society’

McDonnell also spoke about the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives. “Covid highlighted our dependency in terms of access to the internet and broadband overall, particularly within periods of crisis.There’s an increased dependency on broadband for connectivity. And increasingly people recognise it’s better to provide it in public hands.

“Covid also revealed that for those children who were no longer able to go to school, access to the internet was absolutely key. It demonstrated to us that access to the internet increased the class divide within our society and the educational class divide.

“A lot of children in my constituency really struggled to get access, even though the schools were doing all they could to provide them with equipment. It was still an issue of being able to afford access to the broadband itself.

“By providing people with free access to broadband, as well as access to equipment as well, I think it would help us to tackle some of those educational inequalities that we now experience within our society.”

In 2015, McDonnell talked about Labour’s vision being ‘socialism with an iPad’ where everyone could reap the benefits of technological changes. He smiled again about this remark and recollected that most of his team “took the rise out of me as soon as I said it”.

“I wanted though to try and catch the eye about what we meant. And what we meant basically is that 21st century socialism is about making sure that our ideas adapt to the world as it now is. And part and parcel of our lives is our engagement to the internet, both in terms of education and the economy, but also entertainment and the development of our culture. And unless you’ve got access to that internet, you are literally cut off from a whole range of opportunities that it provides.

“If we can do it in a way, which is cost free for people, and in a way which provides the maximum access, then it provides the maximum opportunity, and in many ways it can be seen as quite redistributive. What socialism is, for me, is the achievement of equality through democracy. So by having access in that way, with free access to the internet, free access to broadband within public ownership, and on a not-for-profit basis, it helps us to tackle the inequalities within our society. So that’s why I described it as ‘socialism with an iPad’.”

Keir Starmer, when he took part in the Labour leadership contest, pledged to support the broadband nationalisation policy. Does Starmer, now that he is the leader, still support the policy, I asked?

“I don’t know,” replied McDonnell. “When Keir Starmer stood for being leader, the leadership election set out a 10-point plan. And when he was asked about public ownership of a range of areas like energy, water and broadband, he supported it. But since then, I think it’s true to say that on a number of issues, he’s moved away from those original pledges. He hasn’t said anything publicly on broadband yet. The Labour Party policy process for the development of the manifesto for the next general election is taking place now.

“I think it’s all to play for if. If the Labour Party wants to be seen in the next general election to be relevant to people’s lives, then I think this is one of those key attractive policies that they could advocate. I think it would attract a significant amount of support. I think we can win the argument around broadband.”

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