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The Economic Cost of Conflict of Interest: The Kenyatta Dairy Industry Case

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The main talking point of his speech to the nation two weeks ago was Kenyatta’s directive asking the national Treasury to release Sh500 million to the New Kenya Co-operative Creameries (New KCC) to purchase milk from farmers, and another Sh575 million to revamp two of its processing plants in Kenyatta’s central Kenya political base. The dairy farmers’ woes are blamed on cheap milk imports from Uganda but why the Kenyan market is attracting Ugandan milk has little to do with Uganda’s demand-supply balance, and everything to do with Kenya’s consumer price which is a reflection of the market power exercised by Brookside.

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Two weeks ago, Uhuru Kenyatta called the country to order to make what I gather was anticipated to be a very consequential address to the nation. When a country is in as much political and economic turmoil as Kenya is, it is understandable that a rare formal presidential address to the nation would be highly anticipated.

It is difficult to say whether it met expectations. It certainly did not overwhelm. I don’t get the sense that the country came out of it with a clearer sense of direction of either politics or economics.

The political highlight was without doubt the dismissal of agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri. Kiunjuri promptly called a press conference at which he intimated that he’d endured a fair amount of humiliation, and had been pretty much prepared for the dismissal. A master of Gīkūyū orature, he shrugged off the sacking by saying mumagari nī wa njũa igīrī (when you leave home it is wise to carry a spare garment), meaning in politics you need to have a “plan b”. Figuratively, it’s the equivalent of a middle finger.

But the main talking point of the speech was Kenyatta’s directive asking the national Treasury to release Sh500 million to the New Kenya Co-operative Creameries (New KCC) to purchase milk from farmers, and another Sh575 million to revamp two of its processing plants in Kenyatta’s central Kenya political base. This was one of a raft of financial bailouts of various troubled agriculture sub-sectors that Kenyatta said were his plan to put money in people’s pockets.

Kenyatta’s family enterprise, Brookside Dairies is the largest milk processor in Kenya. It achieved this through a string of acquisitions executed since Kenyatta became finance minister and subsequently president. The reason why Kenyatta’s directive is a talking point is because, since he assumed power, Brookside has been taking money out of people’s pockets. When he took office, processors bought milk from farmers at between Sh30 and Sh35, and sold it to consumers at between Sh60 and Sh65, obtaining a margin of about the same, i.e. Sh30 to Sh35. By the end of Kenyatta’s first term, the consumer price had increased to between Sh110 and Sh120 (i.e by Sh55 to Sh60 per half-litre packet), while the producer price remained unchanged, raising the processors’ margin to the Sh75-Sh90 range.

Over the last two years, the squeeze has shifted from consumers to producers. In August last year Brookside reduced the purchase price of milk from Sh30 to Sh25 per kilo. By December, the media reported that farm-gate prices had fallen to Sh20, and to as low as Sh17 in some places.

The dairy farmers’ woes are blamed on milk imports from Uganda. It has been alleged that some of this milk is sourced from elsewhere and passed off as Ugandan. Kenya and Uganda being part of the East African common market, there is little Kenya can do to protect its market from Ugandan products, but transhipment would violate rules of origin and give Kenya reason to restrict Ugandan imports. In response to these allegations, the Kenyan government dispatched a fact-finding mission to establish whether Uganda had the capacity to export that much milk to Kenya. The trade Principal Secretary was quoted saying that not only did the delegation not find any evidence of transhipment, it had established that Uganda’s milk production has increased significantly in recent years.

The reason why Kenyatta’s directive is a talking point is because, since he assumed power, Brookside has been taking money out of people’s pockets

There’s plenty of information in the public domain on Uganda’s growing dairy export industry. A paper published by the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) shows that Uganda’s dairy exports have grown steadily from virtually zero a decade ago to $79m in 2017. We did not need to go to Uganda to know this. According to the EPRC paper, the Kenyatta-owned Brookside Dairies is the third-largest milk processor in the country in terms of installed capacity at 500,000 litres/day (19 per cent) but second in terms of production at 450,000 litres/day (29 per cent). Still, the allegations have degenerated into a trade row. Last week the Ugandan government sent a formal protest note objecting to what it termed illegal seizures of Ugandan milk, and demanding immediate release.

More fundamentally, why the Kenyan market is attracting Ugandan milk has little to do with Uganda’s demand-supply balance, and everything to do with Kenya’s consumer price. As observed earlier, the retail price of processed milk has doubled from Sh65 to Sh120. In Uganda, a litre of processed milk retails at between USh2,800 and USh3,000 which translates to an average of Sh80, i.e. Sh40 per half-litre packet, compared to Sh60 in Kenya. Ugandan producers are not obliged to satisfy their domestic market when a more profitable market is available across the border. If consumer prices had increased at the rate of inflation faced by Kenyan manufacturers, as measured by the producer price index (2.5 per cent per year), the retail price in Kenya today would be in the Sh70-75 range, which is well below the Uganda retail price.

In a competitive market, Uganda should sell milk to Kenya until the profits for producers in both markets are equal. But the consumer prices in Kenya are not a reflection of market forces. They are a reflection of the market power exercised by Brookside. Why Brookside? Why not New KCC and Githunguri Dairy, or collusion between the three? The answer is simple enough. New KCC and Githunguri Dairy are public entities, the former a state corporation, the latter farmer-owned. They have nothing to gain from a fat bottom line as their mandates are to maximise farmers’ earnings. Whether they pay a decent producer price or distribute dividends, the money ends up with farmers.

Why the Kenyan market is attracting Ugandan milk has little to do with Uganda’s demand-supply balance, and everything to do with Kenya’s consumer price

But even if in the place of New KCC and Githunguri Dairy we had purely capitalist enterprises in the same market position, Brookside, as the market leader, would still be the culprit. In the economics of industrial organisation, the branch that informs competition policy, we call a market dominated by a few players an oligopoly. In an oligopoly, the market leader is the price maker. When the market leader raises prices, the weaker players benefit also. You don’t need a conspiracy to get a cartel. Each of the players acting in their self-interest can result in cartel-like behaviour. We call this non-cooperative collusion.

In essence then, the problem of the milk industry is not an agricultural policy one. It is not a trade policy one either. It is a problem of competition policy. Having sanctioned the Brookside acquisitions, the Competition Authority was obliged to keep an eye on the market to ensure that cartelisation did not occur. As noted, normal prices should be in the order of Sh75 a litre, Sh80 at most, compared to Sh120 today. This is prima facie evidence of abuse of dominance.

I am frequently asked, including by people close to Kenyatta, what it is that he, Kenyatta should do to turn around the economy. My answer is invariably is that there is a world of difference between what can be done, and what Kenyatta can do. The reasons are clear. Kenyatta is so severely enmeshed in the conflict between his family’s business and the public interest that there is hardly a sector of the economy in which the required reforms do not conflict with his personal interests.

For the last four years, the economy has suffered the consequences of ill-advised populist interest rate regulation. Kenyatta expressed reservations about the law, but he went ahead and signed it anyway. The banking industry vigorously opposed the law, and as a bank owner, Kenyatta may not have wanted to be seen to be on the side on which his bread is buttered. If Kenyatta had no personal interest, he would have been in a much stronger position to argue against, and veto the law.

Consumer prices in Kenya are not a reflection of market forces; they are a reflection of the market power exercised by Brookside

Two years ago, a sugar import scandal of monumental proportions unfolded. Initial reports pointed to traders of Somali ethnicity who were reportedly repackaging contaminated contraband sugar and passing it off as “Kabras Sugar”, a local brand owned by West Kenya Sugar Company. The government was threatening damnation. So much so that the CEO of the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) was slapped with an attempted murder charge for allowing the contaminated sugar, said to be laced with copper and mercury, to enter the country. But soon, mountains of sugar, way beyond the capacity of the contraband traders, was discovered in warehouses associated with the owners of the West Kenya Sugar Company, who also happen to be Kenyatta family business associates. It turned out that just before the elections the Government had opened the floodgates and allowed in 990,000 tonnes of duty free-sugar. West Kenya Sugar imported a quarter of it. As soon as this was exposed, the matter died.

The convergence of family and state is best exemplified by Stawi, a mobile phone-based lending platform owned by NCBA Bank—another Kenyatta family enterprise—that is being passed off as a national policy initiative to provide affordable credit to small businesses. Kenyatta himself first spoke of it in his 2019 State of the Nation address, and again in his Mombasa address two weeks ago:

“Measures to enable MSMEs access affordable credit include the recently launched Stawi. This will provide unsecured credit to MSMEs, which, because of their informal nature and lack of collateral securities, had been locked out of the formal credit market. Five commercial banks have set aside 10 billion shillings to be lent to MSMEs at an interest rate of 9 percent per annum, in loan amounts ranging between 30,000 to 250,000 shillings.”

This is sleight of hand, also known in trade lingo as mis-selling. First, the Stawi platform belongs to NCBA, the other four banks are agents. Second, the interest rate of 9 per cent per year, while true, amounts to mis-selling. The true cost of credit is given by the Annual Percentage Rate (APR) which combines both interest and other fees. In addition to the 9 per cent per year interest, there is a facility fee of 4 per cent of the loan amount, a 20 per cent excise duty on the facility fee and a 0.7 percent insurance fee. All in all, these add up to an APR of 14.5 per cent for a one-year loan, 20 per cent for a six-month loan, 31 per cent for a three-month loan and 75 per cent for a one-month loan.

Kenyatta has spoken out against conflict of interest on a number of occasions, including quite recently when he made a big hullabaloo about lawyers who are also senators representing county governors in court. The conflict of interest here is actually tenuous, since all that would be required to avoid it is for the lawyers to recuse themselves if their client’s case comes before the Senate. It remains a profound mystery whether Kenyatta is unaware how egregiously conflicted he is, or it is impunity, or perhaps he suffers from multiple personality disorder. Remarkably, throughout his presidency, no journalist has found it fit to ask Kenyatta this question. It needs to be asked.

Whatever the case, Kenyatta cannot have been unaware that personally wading into the dairy industry was inviting scrutiny of Brookside’s role in the dairy industry mess. That he did so suggests that he may be finally waking up from whatever reverie led him to wonder aloud not too long ago why Kenyans are broke. He may even be finally making the connection between the economic despondency in the country, and the popularity his deputy and now nemesis is enjoying in his central Kenya backyard.

Having sanctioned the Brookside acquisitions, the Competition Authority was obliged to keep an eye on the market to ensure that cartelisation did not occur

And of course, that his administration’s borrowing binge has the government in financial dire straits can no longer be denied. Mr Kenyatta has little to show for the debt. The SGR railway, his flagship project, has become a bugbear that is bleeding the country dry. It costs more and is less efficient than road haulage. The only reason it is running is because importers are forced to use it, gutting the Mombasa economy in the process. Even then, it cannot cover the management fees we are paying the Chinese to run it, let alone service its debt. It is bleeding taxpayers, consumers, importers, business and Mombasa—the only beneficiaries are China and whoever was bribed to build it.

A legacy of economic delinquency is one that Kenyatta cannot be relishing. We can expect him to be increasingly preoccupied with salvaging what he can. He has his work cut out. The government is in negotiations with the World Bank and the IMF for a financial bailout. If that goes through, Kenyatta is likely to spend the rest of his term hemmed in between an IMF straightjacket and his myriad conflicting interests, amidst a brutal vacuous power struggle between his deputy and Raila Odinga, neither of whom, if truth be told, inspire confidence in terms of economic stewardship.

Gakīīhotora nīko koī ūria karīina (one does not adorn for dance without knowing how they will dance) which is to say, as you make your bed, so you must lie on it.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy

If Rwanda is to attain its stated ambition to become of a middle-income country by 2035 driven by the knowledge economy, then it must inject significant investments in the education and related sectors.

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Rwanda has shown commitment to bring improvements to its education sector. The development of Human capital that involves the enhancement of the education and health sectors was one of the main pillars of Rwanda’s development programme launched in 2000 to transform the country into a middle income state driven by the knowledge economy by 2020. Many developed countries joined in to financially support Rwanda to fulfil its development ambitions.

But while Rwanda did not meet its target to transform into a middle-income state by 2020, it has nevertheless made progress in the education sector that should be recognised. The country has now near-universal access to primary education with net enrolment rates of 98 per cent. There are also roughly equal numbers of boys and girls in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools in Rwanda. Compared to other sub-Saharan African countries, Rwanda has made great improvements in the education sector based on the gains made in primary school gross enrolment, out-of-school and retention rates and considering that the country came out of a genocidal civil war in the 1990s. Those of us living and travelling across the country can also see that the government of Rwanda has built more schools across the country to address congestion in classrooms.

However, education in Rwanda is faced with serious challenges which, if not addressed, the country will not attain its ambition to become a middle-income by 2035 and a high-income by 2050. The World Bank’s comparison with middle- and high-income countries, to whose ranks Rwanda aspires to join, shows that Rwanda lags far behind in primary and lower secondary school completion levels.

The gains made in education are not equally distributed across Rwanda. There are, for instance, wide disparities in lower secondary education by income and urban–rural residence. Whereas lower secondary school gross enrolment ratio level is 82 per cent in urban areas, it is only 44 per cent in rural areas. Moreover, transition rates between primary and lower secondary education are 53 per cent in urban areas, and 33 per cent in rural areas. School completion is 52 per cent among the richest quintile while it is 26 per cent among the poorest. Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

The standard of education in Rwanda is another major challenge. At the end of Grade 3, 85 per cent of Rwandan students were rated “below comprehension” in a recent reading test, and one in six could not answer any reading comprehension question. In my view, the quality of education has been partly affected by the abrupt changes in the language of instruction that have taken place without much planning since 2008.

Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

Learning levels in basic education remain low in Rwanda.  Children in the country can expect to complete 6.5 years of pre-primary and basic education by the age of 18 years. However, when this is adjusted for learning it translates to only about 3.8 years, implying that children in Rwanda have a learning gap of 2.7 years. This is a concern.

Education in Rwanda is also impended by high levels of malnutrition for children under 5 years. Although there have been improvements over time, malnutrition levels remain significantly high at 33 per cent. Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings. It also deprives the economy of quality human capital that is critical to Rwanda attaining its economic goals and sustaining its economic gains. In 2012, Rwanda lost 11.5 per cent of GDP as a result of child undernutrition.

Because of low learning levels and high levels of malnutrition in children under 5 years, Rwanda has consistently ranked below average on the World Bank’s Human Capital index since 2018, the year the index was first published. HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens.

If Rwanda is to develop the competent workforce needed to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy and bring it into the ranks of middle-income states, the government must put significant public spending in basic education. This has not been the case over the past decades. According to the World Bank, Rwanda’s public spending on primary education has been significantly lower than the average for sub-Saharan African countries with similar coverage of primary school level as Rwanda. This low spending on primary education has translated into relatively modest pay for teachers and low investment in their professional development which in turn affects the provision of quality education in Rwanda. The government recently increased teachers’ salary but the increment is being eroded by, among other things, food price inflation in Rwanda.

Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings.

Going forward, Rwanda’s spending on education needs to be increased and allocated to improving standards. Considering that the underlying cause of the high rate of malnourishment in children is food insecurity, the government needs to spend more on the agriculture sector. This sector employs 70 per cent of the labour force but has received only 10 per cent of total public investment. Public investment in Rwanda has in the past gone to the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions sector rather than towards addressing pressing scarcities. This approach must be reviewed.

Increasing public expenditure in education and connected sectors should also be combined with strengthening accountability in the government institutions responsible for promoting the quality of education in basic schools and in promoting food security and livelihoods in Rwanda. This is because not a year goes by without the office of the Rwanda auditor general reporting dire inefficiencies in these institutions.

Strengthening institutional accountability can be achieved if the country adapts its consensual democracy by opening up the political space to dissenting voices. Doing so would surely enhance the effectiveness of checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda, including in the education sector, and would enable the country to efficiently reach its development targets.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States

Adam Mayer praises a new collection, Liberated Texts, which includes rediscovered books on Africa’s socialist intellectual history and political economy, looking at the startling, and frequently long ignored work of Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu and Makhan Singh.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States
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Liberated Texts is a magnificent, essential, exciting tome that feels like a bombshell. This incredibly rich collection is a selection that is deep, wide, as well as entertaining. The book focuses on twenty-one volumes from the previous one hundred years, with a geographical range from the UK, the US, Vietnam, Korea, the Peoples Republic of China, the Middle East, Ireland, Malaysia, Africa (especially East Africa), Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union, focusing on books that are without exception, foundational.

The collection is nothing less than a truth pill: in composite form, the volume corrects world history that Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States offered for the sterile, historical curriculum on domestic (US) history. The volume consists of relatively short reviews (written by a wide collection of young and old academics and activists from every corner of the globe) but together they reflect such a unified vision that I would recommend Liberated Texts as compulsory reading for undergraduate students (as well as graduates!) Although the text is a broad canvas it speaks to our age (despite some of the reviewed book having been written in the 1920s).

Each review is by default, a buried tresure. The writer of this very review is a middle-aged Hungarian, which means that some of the works and authors discussed were more familiar to me than they would be to others. For example, Anton Makarenko’s name was, when the author grew up in the People’s Republic of Hungary, a household word. Makarenko’s continued relevance for South America and the oppressed everywhere, as well as his rootedness in the revolutionary transformations of the Soviet experiment, are dealt with here marvellosly by Alex Turrall (p. 289). In loving detail Turrall also  discusses his hero the pedagogue Sukhomlinsky’s love for Stalinist reforms of Soviet education (p. 334).

There is one locus, and one locus only, where death is given reign, perhaps even celebrated: in a Palestinian case (p. 133) the revolutionary horizons are firmly focused on the past, not on any kind of future. The entire problematic of Israeli society’s recent ultra right-wing turn (a terrible outcome from the left’s point of view) is altogther missing here. Yet it is difficult to fault the authors or editors with this (after all, they painstakingly included an exemplary anti-Nazi Palestinian fighter in the text, p. 152) but it might be in order to challenge a fascination with martyrdom as a revolutionary option on the radical left.

In every other aspect, Liberated Texts enlightens without embarrassment, and affirms life itself. Imperialism is taken on in the form of unresolved murders of Chinese researchers in the United States as a focus (p. 307), and in uncovering the diabolical machinations of the peer-review system – racist, classist, prestige-driven as it is (p. 305).

The bravery of this collection is such that we find few authors within academia’s tenure track: authors are either emeriti, tenured, very young academics, or those dedicated to political work: actual grassroots organizers, comrades at high schools, or as language teachers. This has a very beneficial effect on the edited volume as an enterprise at the forefront of knowledge, indeed of creating new knowledge. Career considerations are absent entirely from this volume, in which thankfully even the whiff of mainstream liberalism is anathema.

I can say with certainty regarding the collection’s Africanist chapters that certain specialists globally, on African radical intellectual history, have been included: Leo Zeilig, Zeyad el-Nabolsy, Paul O’Connell, Noosim Naimasiah and Corinna Mullin all shed light on East African (as well as Caribbean) socialist intellectual history in ways that clear new paths in a sub-discipline that is underfunded, purposely confined to obscurity, and which lacks standard go-to syntheses especially in the English language (Hakim Adi’s celebrated history on pan-Africanism and communism stops with the 1950s, and other works are in the making).

Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu, Makhan Singh are the central authors dealt with here. Rodney is enjoying a magnificent and much deserved renaissance (but this collection deals with a lost collection of Rodney’s 1978 Hamburg lectures by Zeilig!) Nabolsy shows us how Nyerere’s Marxist opposition experienced Ujamaa, and Tanzanian ’socialism’. Nabudere – a quintessential organic intellectual as much as Rodney –  is encountered in praxis as well as through his thought and academic achievements in a chapter by Corinna Mullin. Nabudere emerges as a towering figure whose renaissance might be in the making right at this juncture. Singh makes us face the real essence of British imperialism. Nabudere, Babu and even Hirji’s achievements in analysing imperialism and its political economy are all celebrated in the collection.

Where Shivji focuses on empire in its less violent aspect (notably NGOs and human rights discourse) powerfully described by Paul O’Connell, Naimasiah reminds us that violence had been as constitutive to Britain’s empire, as it has been to the Unites States (in Vietnam or in Korea). An fascinating chapter in the collection is provided by Marion Ettinger’s review of Richard Boyle’s Mutiny in Vietnam, an account based entirely on journalism, indeed impromptu testimony, of mutinous US soldiers tired of fighting for Vietnam’s landlord class.

Many readers of this anthology will identify with those veterans (since the collection appears in the English language) perhaps more than with East Asia’s magnificent, conscious fighters also written about in the book. Even in armies of the imperialist core, humanity shines through. Simply put, there are no imperialist peoples, only imperialist states.

Zeilig’s nuanced take on this important matter is revealed in Rodney’s rediscovered lectures. Also, the subtlety of class analysis in relation to workers versus peasants, and the bureacratic bourgeoisie profiting from this constellation (p. 219) brings to mind the contradiction that had arguably brought down Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s anti-imperialist president who nevertheless found himself opposing working class demands. Rodney’s politics in Guyana invited the same fate as Sankara, as we know.

Nabolsy’s review on Hirji’s The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher touches on very interesting issues of Rodney’s role especially in the context of Ujamaa and Nyerere’s idiosyncratic version of African socialism. Nabolsy appreciates Nyerere efforts but analyses his politics with great candour: Ujamaa provided national unification, but failed to undermine Tanzania’s dependency in any real sense. The sad realization of the failure of Tanzania’s experience startles the reader with its implications for the history of African socialism.

On an emotional and personal level, I remain most endeared by the Soviet authors celebrated in this text. So Makarenko and Sukhomlinsky are both Soviet success stories and they demonstrate that this combination of words in no oxymoron, and neither is it necessarily, revisionist mumbo-jumbo. Their artificial removal from their historical context (which had happened many times over in Makarenko’s case, and in one particular account when it comes to Sukhomlinsky) are fought against by the author with Leninist gusto.

Sukhomlinsky had not fought against a supposedly Stalinist education reform: he built it, and it became one of the most important achievements of the country by the 1960s due partly to his efforts. The former educational pioneer did not harm children: he gave them purpose, responsibility, self-respect, and self-esteem. The implication of Sukhomlinsky and Makarenko is that true freedom constructs its own order, and that freedom ultimately thrives on responsibility, and revolutionary freedom.

As this collection is subtitled Volume One, it is my hope and expectation that this shall be the beginning of a series of books, dealing with other foundational texts, and even become a revolutionary alternative to The London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, both of which still demonstrate how much readers crave review collections. Volumes like Liberated Texts might be the very future of book review magazines in changed form. A luta continua!

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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We Must Democratize the Economy

In the UK, prices for basic goods are soaring while corporations rake in ever-bigger profits. The solution, Jeremy Corbyn argues, is to bring basic resources like energy, water, railways, and the postal service into democratic public ownership.

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Jeremy Corbyn: We Must Democratize the Economy
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On Thursday, December 15, the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in their 106-year history. Understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, tens of thousands of National Health Service (NHS) nurses walked out after being denied decent, livable pay rises. Hailed as heroes one year, forced to use food banks the next, nurses’ wages have fallen more than £3,000 in real terms since 2010; three in four now say they work overtime to meet rising energy bills.

People will remember 2022 as the year that the Conservative Party plunged this country into political turmoil. However, behind the melodrama is a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed desperate people into destitution and the so-called middle classes to the brink. We should remember 2022 as the year in which relative child poverty reached its highest levels since 2007 and real wage growth reached its lowest levels in half a century. (Average earnings have shrunk by £80 a month and a staggering £180 a month for public sector workers.) These are the real scandals.

For some MPs, this was the year they kick-started their reality TV careers. For others, this was the year they told their children they couldn’t afford any Christmas presents. For energy companies, it was the year they laughed all the way to the bank; in the same amount of time it took for Rishi Sunak to both lose and then win a leadership contest, Shell returned £8.2 billion in profit. SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland, saw their profits triple in just one year. Profits across the world’s seven biggest oil firms rose to almost £150 billion.

Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means offering an alternative to our existing economic model — a model that empowers unaccountable companies to profit off the misery of consumers and the destruction of our earth. And that means defending a value, a doctrine, and a tradition that unites us all: democracy.

Labour recently announced “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.” I welcomed the renewal of many of the policies from the manifesto in 2019: abolishing the House of Lords and handing powers to devolved governments, local authorities, and mayors. These plans should work hand in hand, to ensure any second chamber reflects the geographical diversity of the country. If implemented, this would decentralize a Whitehall-centric model of governance that wastes so much of this country’s regional talent, energy, and creativity.

However, devolution, decentralization, and democracy are not just matters for the constitution. They should characterize our economy too. Regional governments are demanding greater powers for the same reason an unelected second chamber is patently arcane: we want a say over the things that affect our everyday lives. This, surely, includes the way in which our basic resources are produced and distributed.

From energy to water and from rail to mail, a small number of companies monopolize the production of basic resources to the detriment of the workers they exploit and the customers they fleece. We rely on these services, and workers keep them running, but it is remote chief executive officers and unaccountable shareholders who decide how they are run and profit off their provision. Would it not make more sense for workers and consumers to decide how to run the services they provide and consume?

As prices and profits soar, it’s time to put basic resources like energy, water, rail, and mail back where they belong: in public hands. Crucially, this mold of public ownership would not be a return to 1940s-style patronage-appointed boards but a restoration of civic accountability. Water, for example, should be a regional entity controlled by consumers, workers, and local authorities, and work closely with environmental agencies on water conservation, sewage discharges, the preservation of coastlines, and the protection of our natural world. This democratic body would be answerable to the public, and the public alone, rather than to the dividends of distant hedge funds.

Bringing energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic public ownership is about giving local people agency over the resources they use. It’s about making sure these resources are sustainably produced and universally distributed in the interests of workers, communities, and the planet.

Beyond key utilities, a whole host of services and resources require investment, investment that local communities should control. That’s why, in 2019, we pledged to establish regional investment banks across the country, run by local stakeholders who can decide — collectively — how best to direct public investment. Those seeking this investment would not make their case with reference to how much profit they could make in private but how much they could benefit the public as a whole.

To democratize our economy, we need to democratize workplaces too. We can end workplace hierarchies and wage inequalities by giving workers the right to decide, together, how their team operates and how their pay structures are organized. If we want to kick-start a mass transfer of power, we need to redistribute wealth from those who hoard it to those who create it.

Local people know the issues facing them, and they know how to meet them better than anyone else. If we want to practice what we preach, then the same principles of democracy, devolution, and decentralization must apply to our own parties as well. Local party members, not party leaders, should choose their candidates, create policy, and decide what their movement stands for.

Only a democratic party can provide the necessary space for creative and transformative solutions to the crises facing us all. In a world where the division between rich and poor is greater than ever before, our aim should be to unite the country around a more hopeful alternative — an alternative that recognizes how we all rely on each other to survive and thrive.

This alternative is not some abstract ideal to be imagined. It is an alternative that workers are fighting for on the picket line. Even before the nurses went on strike, 2022 was a record-breaking year for industrial action. Striking workers are not just fighting for pay, essential as these demands are. They are fighting for a society without poverty, hunger, and inequality. They are fighting for a future that puts the interests of the community ahead of the greed of energy companies. They are fighting for us all.

Their collective struggle teaches us that democracy exists — it thrives — outside of Westminster. The government is trying its best to turn dedicated postal workers and railway workers into enemies of the general public — a general public that apparently also excludes university staff, bus drivers, barristers, baggage handlers, civil servants, ambulance drivers, firefighters, and charity workers. As the enormous scale of industrial action shows, striking workers are the general public. The year 2022 will go down in history, not as the year the Tories took the public for fools, but as the year the public fought back. United in their thousands, they are sending a clear message: this is what democracy looks like.

This article was first published by Progressive International

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