Bring back British Rail - a surefire vote winner

Aug 18, 2011
Neil Clark

Labour should pledge to re-nationalise railways and put UK on a par with other Europeans

Here we go again. Britain's train users, who already have to pay by far and away the highest fares in Europe, are to be hit with even more above- inflation increases in the New Year.

Whereas the previous government limited regulated fare increases to RPI plus one per cent, the coalition has changed the pricing formula to allow companies to raise prices by RPI plus three per cent, meaning that, with inflation standing at five per cent in July, average fares in England and Wales will rise by eight per cent in January, with some increasing by as much as 13 per cent.

And all this at a time when most Britons can expect below average pay rises if they're lucky enough to get an increase at all.

Not surprisingly, Labour has lambasted the government, calling the price hikes "eye-watering" and claiming that they are "the direct consequence of the Tory-led government's decision to cut too far and too fast".

But Ed Miliband could - and should - do an awful lot more.

The basic problem with Britain's railways - and the reason why they are so expensive - is that they are privatised and fragmented. As Andrew Murray notes in his book Off the Rails, rail privatisation, a far-right scheme thought up by free market ideologues at the Adam Smith Institute and implemented by John Major's Tory government in 1996, wasn't even a good idea at the time.

If Labour really does want to end the misery of Britain's long-suffering commuters, the party needs to commit to bringing the railways back into full public ownership - as they mostly are in every other major western European country - and then pledge to reduce fares to the European average.

It also needs to oppose the hare-brained proposal of the European Commission to reduce rail subsidies altogether - a plan rightly denounced as 'barmy' by shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle.

Far from costing the taxpayer more money than at present, re-nationalisation would enable the railways to be run much more cheaply. The recent McNulty report found that Britain's railways cost up to 40 per cent more to run than those of France, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden.

Back in the 1990s, supporters of privatisation claimed it would lead to a reduction in the amount of government subsidy to the railways - in fact it has led to the very opposite, with private companies sucking in around five times more in public funds than the state-owned British Rail did. Effectively, taxpayers' money is going to help to boost the privately-owned rail companies' profits - no wonder Richard Branson is regularly pictured with a huge grin on his face.

If Ed Miliband were to move decisively to end this 21st century legalised version of the Great Train Robbery, he would reap a sizeable electoral dividend.

As I wrote for The First Post last year, the coalition's free market Maoism is alienating traditional small 'c' conservatives. Much loved public libraries are under threat of closure or privatisation from Tory councils. Post Offices are threatened by the planned sell-off of the Royal Mail. Andrew Lansley's Health Bill has united health professionals and NHS users in opposition.

And the government's laissez-faire approach to the railways is not going down too well in Middle England either.

A 2009 poll showed that 70 per cent of voters wanted re-nationalisation of the railways - and only 23 per cent supported continued privatisation. By committing to re-nationalisation, Ed Miliband would not only get the support of disaffected old Labourites who ditched the party when it shifted to the right under Tony Blair, but Tory-leaning commuters on the 7.28 from Bourne End to Paddington.

In terms of media support, he'd find that he'd not only have the Guardian and the Daily Mirror on side, but very probably the Daily Mail and Daily Express and their Sunday editions, too. He'd receive plaudits from the uber-conservative commentator Peter Hitchens, who writes an influential column in the Mail on Sunday and who has longed called for the return of British Rail, and the pro-nationalisation Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle as well.

Such a commitment from Labour would be a pivotal moment in early 21st century British politics - a sign that one of our two major parties had finally broken with neo-liberal dogma and gone back to sensible 'what works best' policies.

In the run-up to the 2010 election, I and others urged Labour to support re-nationalisation. Yet the party chose to ignore a vote-winning issue which could have made the difference in a close-run election.

Gordon Brown's successor would have absolutely nothing to lose by changing his party's policy, but potentially millions of votes to gain.

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