Bailing out Thames Water and why we’re all getting poorer…

It’s a long time since I studied The Ancient Mariner at school, but one line sticks in my mind: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink after paying billions in dividends to shareholders…”

Or perhaps it was “Boy have you seen all those floaters in the sea, like a painted shit upon a painted ocean…”

It’s possible time has fuzzed some of Coleridge’s poetic words, but then time has also shown the free-market zealotry of Margaret Thatcher to be a big fat con.

In March 1989, when questioned by Neil Kinnock about her plans to privatise the water industry, the then Tory prime minister was shrilly dismissive in that way she had.

She lectured that privatisation was a “better deal for the consumer” and would be “better for the environment”. Dialling up the hectoring, she said: “The privatised water supply is very much more efficient than a public organisation.”

Well, it’s certainly been more efficient in acquiring huge amounts of debt in order to stump up for those dividends.

As for those environmental benefits, just consider the raw sewage discharged into our rivers and coastal seas more than 300,000 times last year, according to the Daily Mirror.

Oh, and those benefits to consumers have seen a 40% increase in bills since privatisation, with the Times reporting the likelihood of 40% more as the private companies tackle the sewage crisis, caused by them failing to sort out our ancient sewage systems because they were too busy paying all those dividends.

Interestingly, water companies had no debt when they were privatised, but have since borrowed £53bn, much of which “has been used to help pay £72bn in dividends”, according to the Financial Times.

And now Thames Water is on the verge of collapse and may have to be bailed out by the government. Perhaps they could celebrate this latest privatisation success by taking a ride on one of the privatised railways we are now all paying for again after they failed.

All of which seems to chime with a sense that nothing works properly in this country anymore – and most of us are feeling poorer.

When Ronald Reagan campaigned for the US presidency in 1980 he asked a winning question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

Now it’s a downer to have to remember Margaret Thatcher’s dodgy transatlantic buddy as he was just as bad as her. But it’s a question that could be adapted for Britain today: “Are you better off today than you were 13 years ago?”

That’ll be a resounding no.

The other day, the Guardian’s economics columnist Aditya Chakrabortty wrote a column that was shared by one friend on Facebook, then mentioned in the pub by another friend, suggesting the arrival of a moment.

Chakrabortty based much of his analysis on a new book, When Nothing Works, written by a team of scholars and published by Manchester University Press.

Addressing one strand of their analysis into our stagnant society, Chakrabortty wrote “if the same share of GDP was paid out in wages today as in 1976, the average working-age household would have an extra £9,744 a year”.

That’s ten grand a year we’ve lost, not through being lazy at work but because Thatcherite politics destroyed trade unions and created a low-wage workforce.

All politicians, from Sunak to Starmer, talk about “growing the economy” (horrid phrase, but there you go) – but who benefits from that growth? Not the everyday worker; not the teachers or doctors going on strike because their wages are falling behind thanks to that mean double act of austerity and inflation.

Often you’ll hear Rishi Sunak, the prime minister nobody voted for, complaining that nurses and doctors and teachers can’t have a decent pay rise because it would fuel inflation (mysteriously, the same argument doesn’t seem to run with top City bankers or mega rich unelected prime ministers).

Last Sunday’s Observer reported that in fact pay rises for the top 10% of UK earners have “clearly outstripped” those for the rest of the workforce and had driven recent inflation.

So, it’s not all those nurses, teachers and doctors pumping up inflation with their calls for modest pay rises – it’s the pay rises of top earners, according to figures from the National Office of Statistics.

I dimly recall stories from just the other day about how Sunak was about to make a huge announcement about boosting the NHS and employing more doctors and nurses. At the very same time that he is refusing to pay NHS workers, and teachers, fairly – causing many to leave their important professions.

But, yeah, inflation is all their fault.

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