Why Labour’s ‘free broadband’ is a terrible idea

Putting authoritarians in control of the means of communication? Don’t even think about it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill

I can’t have been the only person who experienced a little shiver down the spine at the thought of a Jeremy Corbyn government nationalising broadband.

Corbynistas are notoriously illiberal and censorious. They loathe the tabloid press. They cheered the Leveson showtrial of redtop journalists and editors. They support Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which would cajole all publications to sign up to state-approved regulation – something we haven’t had in this country for 350 years.

And the footsoldiers of the Corbyn movement, that army of woke middle-class agitators and Fisher-Price revolutionaries, are forever engaging in Twitch-hunts against women who question transgenderism, people who are sceptical about climate change, and basically anyone who doesn’t 100 per cent agree with their PC ideology.

Entrusting the key means of communication to such people would be insane. Imagine the terms and conditions. Thinking of going online to say something really outrageous like ‘People with penises are men’ or ‘Diane Abbott just said something daft on Question Time’? Think again!

This is the news that one of Labour’s big ideas in this election is to provide every home and business in the country with free full-fibre broadband by 2030. This would involve nationalising part of BT – namely, its digital wing OpenReach. The aim would be to provide a nationwide internet connection owned by the government.

Labour says the plan would cost £20 billion. BT, apparently taken aback by Labour’s proposal, says it would cost £100 billion. Boris Johnson says it’s a ‘crackpot scheme’.

Leaving aside the sums and the viability of the initiative, the bigger questions are why Labour is making this proposal and what likely impact a government-owned internet service would have on the nation and its citizens.

The ‘why’ is fascinating. This looks a lot like Labour throwing free gifts at people to try to distract our attention from the fact that one of its key promises in this election is to make null and void the votes that millions of people cast in the referendum in 2016.

There is an undeniably patrician streak in this broadband proposal. Labour is effectively saying, ‘Never mind that we plan to overthrow those votes from the 2016 referendum and force through a second referendum – just look at this shiny gift we are offering you!’

It smacks of when bosses of old would offer workers perks and presents if they promised to vote in the ‘correct’ way. It confirms the extent to which Corbyn’s Labour, for all its pretence of radicalism, views the masses more as consumers than as active democrats.

So it presumes we will be happy with a freebie (which won’t actually be free, given it will be funded by our own taxes), so much so that we might actually forget that Labour and its bourgeois agitators in the Momentum movement are trouncing the most important vote people have cast for a very long time: the vote for Brexit.

It diminishes citizens to treat them like children who should be content with a few crumbs from the government’s table. People want to be treated as serious, active players in society – and that’s something the current patrician, anti-democratic Labour Party cannot offer us.

And then there’s the issue of the impact this policy would have. To put it bluntly, putting Corbyn and his crew in charge of the technology that facilitates the sharing of ideas, beliefs and conversations is like asking a wolf to herd your sheep.

Of course, telecommunications in this country have been nationalised in the past. BT was only privatised in 1984. But we live in a very different climate now, one in which we aren’t only talking about the government providing the machinery that allows people to natter on the phone, but about a Corbyn-led government aspiring to oversee the connections that facilitate political debate, social sharing, argumentation, and much, much more.

It would be wild to grant control over broadband to a political organisation that has amply demonstrated its hostility to open debate and internet freedom.

This isn’t about being anti-nationalisation. It makes sense for certain areas of life to be nationalised, to be elevated out of the arena of the profit motive and injected with a bigger sense of social purpose and mission. Education, health, maybe the railways too.

But broadband? Communications? Nope. Not today. Not when we live under bureaucracies that care very little for freedom of speech. And certainly not under a Labour Party that can’t even spell the word liberty.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty

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Mick Sputnik

17th November 2019 at 4:04 pm

Predictably Comrade O’Neill has leapt into auto-contrarian mode (something I suggested on Instagram once and got censoriously blocked by him!). I have a Labour-run council, should I be worried about the way they run the local library based on the above article? Do none of the people scoffing at the idea of British Broadband recognise the potentially transformative effect it would have on the lives of the 2 million older people who live alone in the UK, many of whom are isolated and rarely see other people?

Marvin Jones

18th November 2019 at 12:09 pm

AND! the half a million immigrants that stroll into all inclusive England every year. Still think that this is sustainable?

Mick Sputnik

18th November 2019 at 5:26 pm

If they’re tax payers, yeah…

Evan Millner

17th November 2019 at 9:16 am

One thing omitted in the analysis is the effect on prices for the consumer: There is no free lunch. If Amazon, Facebook, Netflix etc etc are taxed with special internet taxes, these costs will simply be passed on to the consumer, either directly in increased subscription costs (Netflix), or indirectly, via increased advertising rates and (for Paypal etc) increased transaction costs, which in turn will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. So, it will be paid for by the end user, but in a way that is no longer transparent. Companies such as Ocado and other online delivery companies will also, presumably, be taxed with an internet tax, and these costs will also have to be passed on. The end result will be loss of transparency, with no way to directly compare pricing structures; inevitably, the consumer will end up paying more, as there is no way a state-run enterprise can be more efficient than lean companies in competition with each other. State Internet will suffer from institutional bloat, and we will all end up paying through the nose for it.

A second strong argument against, is that technology is constantly advancing, and accelerating in its advance exponentially. The state is always reactive in this area, not proactive. The lack of competition will turn the resulting service into a state owned dinosaur in short order. This of course, could have the advantage of driving innovation, for example, via a distributed internet that works wirelessly peer-to-peer from mobile device to mobile device – an idea that has been mapped out already in theory, but is not quite yet technologically possible. And any number of other technological ideas that have not been thought of yet. With technology advancing so rapidly, attempting to freeze one iteration of it, an iteration that will inevitably become as cutting-edge as a dial-up modem, in state control, is sheer lunacy.

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