Pull up on the hard shoulder, David Cameron, and think again
The toll-roads wheeze is not just a bad idea, it's bad politics - if the PM wants to keep Conservatives on side
THEY'VE flogged off the Tote, the state-owned bookmaker set up by Winston Churchill in 1928. They've sold the Channel Tunnel rail link to two Canadian pension funds. The NHS faces privatisation in all but name, some police services are to be carried out by private companies, and the Royal Mail, in state hands since its inception in 1516, is to be sold, with the taxpayer left paying for the company's pension fund liabilities.
And still the serial privatisers in the ConDem coalition aren't satisfied.
The most manically pro-privatisation government in British history - one which makes even the Thatcher governments from 1979-90 look positively social democratic - now wants to hand our motorways and 'A' roads over to private companies and foreign-owned investment funds.
"Why is it that other infrastructure - for example water - is funded by private sector capital through privately owned, independently regulated utilities, but roads in Britain call on the public finances for funding?" asked David Cameron as he unveiled his 'audacious' plan to allow firms, and investment funds to build, operate and maintain Britain's most important roads.
Well, there's quite a few points to make in answer to that one, Prime Minister.
First, it beggars belief that anyone would hold England's privatised water industry up as a model to be emulated. In the first ten years after privatisation, water and sewerage prices rose, in real terms, by a whopping 36 per cent and 42 per cent respectively. This year, England's privately owned water companies are hiking charges by as much as 8.2 per cent from April; in Scotland, where the water is still publicly owned, there's going to be no price rise at all, for the fourth year running.
None of this should surprise us: privately owned and operated infrastructure will always be more expensive than publicly owned and operated infrastructure for the simple reason that private companies' number one aim is to maximise profit. If we allow private firms to operate our major roads, inevitably the costs to motorists will rise.
While Cameron has said that motorists would not pay to use existing roads; firms would, under his proposals, be able to widen roads and introduce pay as-you-go lanes. It would be a short step then to national road pricing, and our roads going exactly the same ways as our privatised railways - easily the most expensive in Europe.
Cameron's plans are not only bad for motorists, but bad politics as well. As with the plan to flog off England's publicly owned forests, as with the government's Health Bill, as with the proposals for gay marriages, as with the planned sell-off of the Royal Mail, as with the relaxation of Sunday trading laws announced yesterday, this is a measure that will go down like a lead balloon with traditional Conservative voters.
There is something fundamentally un-British about charging motorists to drive on roads when they already pay road tax. Nearly 1.8m people signed a petition opposing road pricing when the idea was mooted by Tony Blair in 2007, and the last poll on the subject, taken in 2007, showed that 74 per cent of Britons opposed road pricing.
Given the frequency with which he comes up with such voter-unfriendly policies, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cameron has a perverse desire to alienate his supporters and go down in history as a one-term premier. But his seemingly puzzling behaviour becomes more understandable once one appreciates that the party he leads is not actually a 'conservative' party at all.
It could more accurately be described as the Neo-Liberal Party, led by a group of free market zealots for whom privatisation and following 'market forces' trump all other considerations. The leading figures in the party (but not the grassroots members or Conservative voters) are socially and economically liberal, which is what makes them ideal coalition partners for the pro-privatisation Orange Book Liberal Democrats.
It's interesting to see how Cameron's road proposals have been reported in Tory-supporting papers like the Daily Mail and the Express. 'New Age of Pay-to-Drive: motorists face more tolls under plan to sell roads' was the Mail headline. 'Toll roads to cover Britain' exclaimed the Express, which added in its lead story that "concerns will be triggered that many of the country's roads could end up in foreign ownership".
All of this provides a tremendous opportunity for Labour. If Ed Miliband can ditch Blairism and adopt the more socially conservative but more economically left-wing 'Blue Labour' positions advocated by Professor Maurice Glasman, there could be rich electoral dividends.
There are signs that Labour is alive to the opportunity. "Motorists already suffering from record fuel prices now face a road charging free-for-all, adding to the cost of living crisis facing households up and down the country," was the verdict of Labour's transport spokesperson Maria Eagle on Cameron's latest wheeze. "Instead of easing the burden on drivers and boosting our stalled economy through a temporary cut in VAT, ministers look set to let private companies take over the strategic road network and charge drivers for access."
This followed Ed Balls, sitting on Andrew Marr's sofa on Sunday morning, commenting on the government's "experiment" to allow big stores to open for longer than six hours on Sundays this summer: "Today, on Mothering Sunday, there are mums at home with their kids because Sunday trading laws mean they can have the morning off".
The reality is David Cameron's mania for 'market solutions' is likely to push millions of Britons into the arms of the opposition. After years of 'reforms', most Britons desperately want some stability, not further 'audacious' privatisation plans and 'radical' free-market solutions.
In short, they want a 'conservative, government, to conserve what's best about our country - the NHS, the Royal Mail, the free-to-use roads. Labour, if it plays its cards right, could be the party to deliver.