Renationalisation was put firmly back on the agenda at this week’s Labour party conference, even if it was forced to wrestle for airtime with the noisier, bigger beasts of Brexit and the prospect of a general election.

Still, many utility chief executives will have been listening closely to the speeches in Liverpool, well aware of the potential impact on their businesses if Labour were to come to power with its vision of putting “the greatest extension of democratic rights” at the heart of its administration.

Sector leaders won’t have missed that extending that democracy means public ownership of water companies and parts of the energy system. It was a key manifesto pledge for Labour at the last election, and the leadership has now added meat to the bones of its plan.

Berating what he called the “scandal of the privatisation of water” with bills climbing 40 per cent in real terms, and £18 billion paid in dividends, the shadow chancellor’s announcement that Labour would sack water bosses, advertise their jobs at capped salaries and hand control to regional groups, will have sent a chill through boardrooms.
How this all might pan out within energy is less clear.

Although there is no sign of a general election yet, there must be a growing realisation that the opposition’s programme could quite feasibly become reality.

John McDonnell says opinion poll after opinion poll has shown public support for such a move. But it’s certainly a high-risk strategy, when water and energy would be competing for funds with other lifeline sectors such as health and housing.

And no-one can argue that, since privatisation, water companies have invested around £150 billion after years of being starved of investment under public ownership.
As an industry insider pointed out, it’s difficult to imagine ­anyone wanting to revisit those days.

For now, though, as the party political roadshow rolls on, ­renationalisation – along with every other important domestic policy – looks set to continue to be drowned out by the furore ­surrounding Brexit. Utility chief executives, however, will be acutely aware that it has not gone away.

 

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