In the words of Etta James: “at last”. In September 2015 the Labour Party Conference voted to officially put the renationalisation of the English railways into its party platform. At the time there was a little bit of media coverage but in recent days this same policy position has gained a lot of coverage, especially online. As I said in a previous article this kind of policy is essential in illustrating how socialist policies can be beneficial to people’s everyday lives.
In recent days the Labour Party have claimed that since David Cameron took office in 2010 rail fares have increased by 25%. This remarkable statistic is actually true, but there is something interesting in the statistics. Indeed a Virgin Trains season ticket from Birmingham to London (Euston) will cost over £10,000 for the first time ever. First of all, the thought of paying £10,000 for a season ticket almost made me cry. Secondly the response from the government wasn’t actually a denial of this figrue; rather the Rail Minister said: “we’ve put a stop to inflation busting increases in regulated fares until 2020”.
This 25% figure is in relation to unregulated standard class tickets however regulated fares have only risen in real terms by 7% since 1995. As if it needed to be pointed out, this clearly demonstrates that government regulation can have a positive impact. The government’s response totally misses the point. The government arguing that it’s good that regulated fares are now rising more slowly than wages is fine, but people aren’t complaining about those ticket rises. People are complaining that unregulated fares are going through the roof, not that the government is getting in the way of morally virtuous train companies from lowering fares.
The British railway system is unique in that it is hated by capitalists and socialists alike. Socialists argue that such an important service should be run by the state because the government can then target investment at different parts of the transport network as a part of an integrated transport policy. Also socialists argue that our current system results in private companies making a profit off this system whilst investment and maintenance is paid for by the government.
Capitalists, on the other hand, say that the British system isn’t actually privatised because if you want to get a direct train from, for example, London (St Pancras) to Sheffield you have to get on a East Midlands train service. This, capitalists correctly argue, isn’t competition and therefore companies have no incentive to lower prices or improve services as franchises are renewed every five or ten years. The moral of the story is that we all agree that the current system is terrible.
Labour’s policy is encouraging for two reasons. Number one: the policy is symbolic of how a Corbyn premiership would actually institute socialist policies rather than more Blairite corporate blowjobs. The policy marks a distinct break from Labour policies of recent years. Don’t get me wrong Ed Miliband was much more left-wing than Tony Blair, but the policies that Labour put forward were noticeably lacking in real socialist principles. For example, in the case of energy companies, Miliband would have frozen energy prices until 2017 in order to prevent further price rises, whereas the Labour Party should have supported renationalising the industry as a whole.
The second is that it speaks to a wider narrative that needs to be promoted in order to challenge Britain’s neoliberal consensus. Since Thatcher any socialist policy that has been put forward has been derided as unrealistic, inefficient, and expensive. Due to the electoral success of Thatcher and Blair, this consensus has become a part of the conventional wisdom of the establishment and is now reinforced by large sections of the media. Despite all of this, polls show that a large majority of people support renationalising the railways. This policy can be used a vessel to counteract this ideological consensus.
By re-establishing socialist policies as credible the Labour Party will create a more vibrant economy, as all these suggestions would do is bring Britain back in line with other developed nations. Furthermore this would improve Britain’s democracy. Whenever there are elections people say that politicians are all the same. If people want to vote for a party that is promising positive and distinct change, these kinds of policies are exactly that.
Politicians are constantly trying to relate their policies to people’s everyday lives in order to garner votes, but the cost of travel is something that everyone can understand. If Labour shouts this policy from the rooftops it can inoculate itself against Tory attacks as if Conservative ministers or activists say that this is economically stupid, they are arguing against what the British people want. Openly arguing against what the British people want is not a great way to win an election in a British representative (somewhat) democracy.
This policy needs to be spoken of in every interview in the next few days in as many different ways as possible. Appeal to people’s left-wing populism by railing (pun intended) against the corporate executives who take home large salaries whilst services get worse. Talk about how it will save people money, thus giving people more disposable income for consumer spending or reducing personal debt. Talk about how it will save the government money in the long term and thus bring down the deficit. Talk about how a state-run service can be made more transparent to customers, therefore making it easier to make complaints against poor customer service. Talk about how investment in the railway network, as a part of an integrated transport policy, would take cars off the road thus improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions.
Mentioning this policy at every opportunity would improve Labour’s poll numbers, as most of the country supports this policy, and would also improve Labour’s economic credibility as this policy could be framed as the party understanding the concerns of ordinary people. If Corbyn’s Labour Party keeps putting out policies like this the Tories will have to shift to the Left or they’ll be defeated in 2020.