“All monopolies which are sustained in any way by the State ought to be in the hands of the representatives of the people, by whom they should be administered, and to whom their profits should go.”

The author of this ringing endorsement of public ownership was no red in tooth and claw Bolshevik but “Jo” Chamberlain, the Liberal Party-supporting visionary behind the “gas and water socialism” under which Birmingham council took over these essential utilities in the late 19th century. Chamberlain ended his career as a cabinet minister in a Conservative government.

A reminder of this cross-party support for public ownership might help Labour persuade the British public that its own plans to bring energy and water utilities back into public ownership are not a crazed Marxist plot.

Labour has pledged to restore public ownership of energy distribution and water, a pledge that featured strongly in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the conference of the GMB union in which he lambasted water bosses over dividends paid to shareholders.

The speech contained no new detail about Labour’s plans beyond a vague defence of the principle that employees should have a stake in the companies that they work in – but that doesn’t mean Labour wants mutual ownership of the water industry, says a spokesman.

Corbyn is said to have little interest in the nitty gritty of policy development. However, if it wants to convince the British public, Labour will have to start showing that its plans, ahem, hold water.

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