As with any crisis, Covid-19 has created great opportunities for some – and not just private companies selling PPE to the government at vastly-inflated prices. For some of the left, it has presented a chance to push for policies involving a much greater role for the state. With the government paying the wages of millions of furloughed workers and propping up private businesses forced to close under lockdown rules, what better time than to push for much greater state involvement in all areas of our lives?
Typifying this opportunism is an article by Bill Ribeiro-Addy, Labour MP for Streatham, arguing that the crisis in home-schooling shows why Jeremy Corbyn was right all along about free broadband. 'The pandemic has been a lesson that the government must not leave communities to fend for themselves,' she writes in Politics Home. 'As we rebuild, we must guarantee a device for every child and full fibre internet for every home.'
That schools have been closed without proper provision for remote learning is lamentable. It has, as Ribeiro-Addy observes, opened up a huge divide between children who have laptops and good broadband connections and those who have been left trying to work on phones or borrowed computers, in some cases without a broadband connection.
It is difficult enough to try to sustain a decent education away from the classroom, but it is all but impossible if children can’t get online. The government should have been quicker on to this problem in the spring lockdown, and made sure that every child either had proper computer facilities – or else was welcome to continue to come to school, along with the children of keyworkers, and use the facilities there.
But that is rather different from making broadband a permanently state-run service, free at the point of delivery. To do that would mean free broadband connections handed out not just to the poor but to a very large number of wealthy households who can quite easily afford to pay a monthly broadband subscription. Needless to say, someone would have to pay for it. The bill would come to about £13 billion a year if Britain’s 27 million households were all to have broadband provided at a cost of £40 a month. That cost would fall upon the taxpayer.
Moreover, broadband – while essential to business or to home education – is hardly the most vital of utilities. If broadband were to be turned into a service free at the point of delivery, it would be a small step to demanding that water or electricity was also provided free by the state. And, then, what about food? For Corbynites, free broadband is the start of a path towards full socialism.
Some might cheer this, but would they still be cheering when the quality of state broadband – freed from the need to compete with anyone else – declined? We’ve all had broadband problems, but at least at the moment we can exercise our power as consumers to get our supplier to up its game – or otherwise walk away and sign up with another provider. It might sound enticing now, the offer of having something we have previously had to pay for suddenly given to us for free. But we know from the nationalised industries of the post-war years where that leads: stagnation and poor service.