Thursday, 4 October 2012
Rail Nationalisation: What Are We Waiting For?
Neil Clark asks the Lib Dem editors and readers alike over on Comment is Free:
Is there anything that better highlights the democratic deficit in Britain – and the gap between the political elite and ordinary people – than the issue of renationalisation of the railways? A poll on this website asking whether the railways should be nationalised is currently showing 93% support for public ownership. That's a self-selecting bunch of Guardian readers you might say. But a poll on MSN showed 75% in favour. A similar number was found in a poll carried out by GfKNOP in September.
Yet despite the public clearly wanting an end to Britain's privatised railway nightmare, not one of our three major parties is currently committed to renationalisation.
The Conservatives, the party that privatised the railways in the first place, seem to think that the railways aren't privatised enough. There was no mention of renationalisation in the Tories' 2010 general election manifesto: instead they thought the answer was to grant even longer rail franchises to the rail companies.
The Lib Dems, who did pledge renationalisation in the 2005 election, dropped the policy when the party moved to the right under Nick Clegg and the influence of the Orange Bookers. And while Labour's transport spokeswoman Maria Eagle has conceded that the party was "too timid" to tackle rail privatisation when in government, and Ed Miliband says he is "open-minded" about renationalisation after the west coast mainline fiasco, the leadership has still to come out and say that they will bring back British Rail if they win the next election.
How can we explain the big three parties' reluctance to adopt a policy that would be a clear vote winner? Well, it can't be about cost: the Rebuilding Rail report of the Transport for Quality of Life puts the cost of having a privatised railway at least £1.2bn a year. As I argued here, it's not renationalisation we can't afford, but a privatised system. As Rebuilding Rail says, an easy low-cost way of bringing the network back into public ownership would be to simply take each franchise back into the public sector when it expires or when the franchisee is unable to meet the franchise conditions. The government has already said that it will run the west coast mainline on a temporary basis from December, why not make the arrangement permanent?
Those who say it can't be done should look at the case of New Zealand where the railways were renationalised after a similarly disastrous experiment with privatisation.
The problem seems to be that despite the financial crash of 2008, Britain's political elite are still in thrall to neoliberal dogma. This dogma holds that nationalised industries are inherently "inefficient" and that "private sector solutions" are always best. But this flies in the face of the evidence of the past 33 years. No one who travels regularly on the eminently affordable, reliable and comfortable state-operated railways of, say, Germany and France could say – hand on heart – that they are less efficient that Britain's overcrowded and hideously expensive privatised trains. It may not be fashionable in elite circles to say it but British Rail did a much better job – and with much less public money – than its privately run successors.
The parties' stance also, I believe, shows the vice-like grip that capital has on our political system. Rail privatisation has been terrible news for ordinary Britons – who pay up to 10 times more for their season tickets than their continental counterparts, but for the banks, accountancy firms and capitalists like Richard Branson, whose Virgin Trains operation has hoovered more than a billion pounds of taxpayers' subsidies, it has been one great financial bonanza. Renationalisation would make some very rich and well-connected people stamp their feet and get rather angry – but in a democracy aren't the parties supposed to represent the majority of the people and not minority elite interests?
It's also worth noting that while the public have to pay for their own train tickets, our legislators get theirs reimbursed. I suspect that if MPs did have to fork out for their train fares from their own pocket, all three major parties would be calling for renationalisation tomorrow.
The inaction makes one despair of representative democracy. It's not just the railways where the Westminster elite are ignoring the people, it's water privatisation too. A poll in the Sunday Express showed that 71% wanted to see water renationalised, yet once again, not one of our big three parties are in favour.
George Lansbury, the socialist Labour leader in the 1930s, would not be at all surprised. A supporter of a more direct form of democracy, he wrote: "With an educated nation, every man or woman entitled to vote on equal terms, it is possible to reduce the status of elected persons and use them as servants carrying out the will of the people, instead of as now, imposing their will upon the nation."
If the elite can't give us the railway system we want, it's time we gave serious thought to overhauling our entire political system.