The Channel 4 Disaster Shows the Need for Compulsory Referendums on Decisions Regarding Public Ownership

As the government attempts to privatise Channel 4, Luke Williams makes the case for compulsory referendums to be held whenever a decision on privatisation or nationalisation of an industry is made.

Some weeks ago the Government announced that it is privatising Channel 4. This is a controversial move that has sparked a wide debate within the Conservative party and a strong condemnation from opposition parties. Further than that, the move also seems unpopular with the public too, with a phenomenal 96% of respondents to a government consultation run by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport being against privatisation.

Channel 4 is popular; it funds itself entirely through advertisement revenue, produces good content that millions of people enjoy, and it creates jobs outside of London. It’s also worth noting that the channel was set up under the Thatcher Government. The Government’s official reasoning for the privatisation is that it will allow Channel 4 to “thrive in the light of a rapidly changing Media landscape”, but Channel 4 has pushed back against privatisation, and it presented the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport with an alternative plan. Seemingly, that plan was not taken on board. 

As time has gone on, the façade that Channel 4 is being sold for economic or operational purposes is fading away. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries recently let the mask slip in a culture select committee hearing, noting that the Channel “hasn’t done itself any favours”. Groups opposed to the move have accused the Government of playing politics all along, suggesting that the sale is political retribution against a Channel known for its more liberal tilt. Dorries’ comments certainly don’t do anything to ease that reasonable fear. 

While it can be easy to think of this as any other Government policy, nationalisation, and privatisation of any assets on behalf of U.K taxpayers is a whole different beast. Any type of State-Owned Enterprise technically belongs to every citizen of this country and making decisions about privatising these assets or bringing new ones into public ownership impacts all of us indirectly. If a state-owned enterprise is privatised, British taxpayers most likely lose that asset for good. Equally, if an asset is nationalised, UK taxpayers are on the hook for the upfront cost of the asset, as well as any ongoing costs, especially if major issues arise. Thus, with this in mind, legislation pursuing nationalisation or privatisation of any asset cannot simply be treated on equal terms as any other bill, permitted to be rammed through on party lines.

This leads onto the main argument of this piece, with all these points noted, it’s my view that any privatisation of a State-Owned enterprise should have to gain approval through a referendum to proceed. The voters should get a final say regarding whether they want to let go of an asset they indirectly own. But this argument works both ways and equally applies to nationalisation too. Any type of nationalisation should also have to gain approval through a referendum to proceed. The voters should again have a say about whether they want the Government to bring a specific asset into public ownership on their behalf, using their tax money. This requirement should be equally applicable for local authorities, though of course in these instances only local residents would be eligible voters.

A referendum requirement would allow the British voters to have a true say over these important decisions, and importantly allow them to pull the emergency brake if they believe taxpayer funds are being misappropriated or the Government is metaphorically selling off the crown jewels. If a confirmatory referendum had to be held over the Channel 4 privatisation, the British people would most likely say no. But looking back in time, if the multiverse is real and we have this requirement in place in another dimension, the likelihood is that the British people would have used their voice wisely on these issues. Voters may have told the Government to hold their horses on Royal Mail privatisation, and equally should Jeremy Corbyn have won in 2019 and embarked on his ambitious plans for nationalisation, voters would have been able to holistically examine the plans and send Labour back to the drawing board if they deemed the plans unrealistic, unnecessary, or too expensive.

A referendum requirement for these sensitive decisions would allow a crucial check on the Government and would ensure parliament carefully considers the popularity and viability of their plans. It would enable voters to have the final say on these issues and make sure decisions on public ownership are taken with the publics’ best interests and wishes at heart. Rather than being taken on the basis of partisan or ideological reasoning.

Luke Williams is a 20-year-old Labour Member and Politics Student at the University of Liverpool. He is also a member of the governing Council of U.K pressure group Unlock Democracy, and tweets at @Luke_Williams26.

Cover photo by Matt Brown, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.  


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