In 2009, East Coast Mainline was taken out of the hands of private companies and effectively renationalised.
Successive franchises had been bailed out by central government, so the route is now run by the state-owned Directly Operated Railways (DOR). It is the only part of the mainline railway to be run by the state rather than for profit. Two private companies failed, but as a nationalised railway, East Coast has been successful. DOR claims less funding from the treasury than any of the privately-run franchises, and has returned over £1b into the treasury since it was established. East Coast is consistently at the top of passenger satisfaction surveys.
The Tory government are not taking the success of this limited renationalisation lying down. They intend to pass the East Coast back into the private sector. They want as little of the economy as possible to be excluded from the rule of profit. Everything should be making someone money. The experience of the failed privatisation of the East Coast line and the success of DOR demonstrates quite starkly just how inefficient private companies are at running our railways. Privatisation has, from an organisational point of view, set the industry back over half a century.
Twice in recent years the Labour Party conference has voted overwhelmingly to support the renationalisation of the railways, in 2005 and 2013. The Labour leadership have been more than happy to publicly explain that, despite these votes, Labour will not actually adopt a policy in favour of renationalisation.
Following the 2013 vote, however, the pressure on the leadership from renationalisation campaigners forced a fudged compromise. The leadership’s official policy is that the franchising system will continue, and bids will continue to be considered from private companies, but in addition public bodies will be able to bid to run sections of the railway as well. The effect would be to possibly replicate DOR on other routes than the East Coast.
This proposal would obviously fall well short of renationalisation. Even if the entire railway network was run by DOR, at some point we would still be stuck with the inefficiencies of the attribution of delay minutes and the problems involved in fighting for terms and conditions across many different employers. We would also still be stuck with the ludicrously inefficient franchising system itself, which transport behemoths like First Group have shown they are willing to challenge in court at great expense to all of us.
Despite the flaws in these proposals they still go too far for transport magnates like Tim O’Toole, the boss of First Group. He recently claimed they indicated the Labour leadership had a “fixation” on renationalisation, which may have come as a surprise to the various Labour Party conference delegates the leadership have overruled on this question over the years. Labour’s proposals would eat into the potential profits of First, and companies like it, even if they would not provide full renationalisation.
But the limited movement shows the Labour leadership is vulnerable on this question. Pressure from affiliated unions on Labour while in opposition, and on any post-2015 Labour government, could force further movement and, at the very least, open up a new front of political and industrial battle over the issue.
Workers’ Liberty, the group which publishes Off The Rails, calls for a “Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory” in next year’s general election. We want a Labour government, as the only viable alternative to the Tories, but we want unions and working-class community campaigns to fight for a set of policies radically different to the one the current Labour leaders are likely to deliver. policy.
How far the Labour leaders will go in government depends how much pressure they feel under. The weaker the pressure, the more confident they will feel to govern as straightforward neo-liberals, carrying on with Tory austerity. The greater the pressure, the less free they will feel to do that
Unions, and other campaigners, have been able to put pressure on Labour to change their policy as structural links exist between the Labour Party and the organised working class.
The lengths to which Labour’s leaders are still going to try and undermine, and ultimately to sever, those links, by disenfranchising the collective union voice within the Labour Party, shows that they still see the Labour-union link as a threat and potential challenge.
We wish to use those links to promote socialist ideas, such as a railway system run by the state on the basis of the needs of the population, not the profit it can provide.