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Publicly owned railways, not just right but popular

44-takingtrain-gt(1)As the National Policy Forum in Milton Keynes draws nearer, all eyes are on Labour’s policy formation process. Left Futures has discussed bringing back rail into public ownership before. But it is worth returning to the subject because it illustrates everything that is wrong about the way that our party currently makes policy.

We know that renationalising the railways is popular. Polling by YouGov consistently show that two in three voters support it. I know it’s popular because it happens to be the only subject that I have ever been commissioned to write about by the Sunday Express! It was during the 2010 leadership campaign, they knew that I was the only leadership candidate who supported it and they approached me for an article explaining that they knew it was something their readers were keen on. The fact that we now have the highest train fares in Western Europe has further helped to harden attitudes against the current arrangements.

Happily rail nationalisation is also relatively modest in cost. Whenever you suggest any type of re-nationalisation, right wingers will normally shake their heads mournfully and talk about the cost to the public purse. But you could take rail back into public ownership by the simple expedient of taking each franchise back into public hands as their terms expired or if they got into financial difficulties. In the course of a parliament you could have most of the railways safely back under the people’s control. A report by the Transport for Quality of Life think tank said renationalising the railways could even save money, £1.2 billion, through cheaper borrowing costs, removing shareholders dividends and reducing fragmentation.

Understandably then, a powerful alliance of Labour activists, unions and green supporters have rallied behind plans to force the party to adopt renationalization of the railways as official policy. They have rejected the party leadership’s preferred compromise (allowing the state to bid against the private sector for each new franchise) as a fudge.

Interestingly most commentators don’t even attempt to argue any practical case against rail nationalisation.

Instead they complain that supporting it will make the Labour party look “anti-business”. And looking “anti-business” apparently outweighs whether the policy is actually the right one for Britain. The trouble with this analysis is that almost anything Ed does between now and the 2015 election will be interpreted as “anti-business” Poor Ed will only have to blow his nose to have it interpreted as anti-capitalist activity by the Tory press. And disgruntled Blairites will lever the lids of their coffins to join in the chorus of complaints.

It is not “anti-business” of course to pump £4billion of tax payer’s money into the current arrangements, the better to subsidise multi-million bonuses for Network Rail bosses and shareholders dividends.

So, if Ed is going to be called “Red Ed” anyway, isn’t it better to decide policy on the basis on what is right for the British people rather than what the establishment defines as the acceptable parameters of policy making? Who knows, he might end up with a coherent set of policies that are not just right but also popular.

One Comment

  1. Robert says:

    No arguments from me the problem is of course who runs it for you, how much money do you take out of it, and how much do you pump into it.

    Nationalized railways run on a shoe string will never work and sadly in the past both parties tried to do that.

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