You can buy electricity from the gas company nowadays. And gas from the electricity company. Confused? Then what are we to make of the West Coast rail franchise, where the bearded boss of an airline is displeased that the Department for Transport so nearly awarded the contract to a bus company? Is it really so old-fashioned to suggest that railways might perhaps best be run by railwaymen?
Not so old-fashioned at all, as One-Nation Labour inches towards renationalisation. Others have been through this cycle before. Free markets, it is said, have got us where we are today. Along with the abuse of free markets by those with the means to use the political system to rob us when the going gets tough. All in the good cause of ‘financial stability’. That renationalisation is happening elsewhere is a sign of coming times here, as commercial elites lose their way and other interests start to move in on the vacuum left behind. Banks and railways are two examples of market failure, where the private sector is increasingly throwing itself into the arms of the State and saying, in effect, ‘we’re stuffed, now you sort it out’. It’s not as if the railways cost less now that the subsidies are paid to private companies. They cost more.
We watch with trepidation. A debate over the future of public services, and especially over their democratic control, is one we welcome, but not one with a predetermined outcome. Common ownership is not a problem in itself; centralised control, however, is.
We want to see railways owned and managed by those who care about them, those who use them and those for whom they are an integral part of the local community and its functioning. We don’t want them run by multi-national conglomerates, passed around like Monopoly cards and subjected to permanent revolution in the form of franchises too short for long-term investment planning and too long for meaningful accountability.
But neither do we want a return to the black hole of British Rail, or any part of the managerialist nightmare that was nationalisation, where the management was above accountability and the politicians practised keyhole interference but displayed no sense of vision or responsibility towards a vital public asset.
We have two specific reasons for trepidation, one economic, the other constitutional.
Labour wants renationalisation because it is a party of grands projets. It wants the white elephant of HS2, just like the other London parties, as a virility symbol and won’t be dissuaded by sober analysis of the facts. That commercially the project doesn’t stack up. And that integrating the far-flung provinces with the London market will ruin them further. We need WORSE connections to the capital, not BETTER, if we are to protect our own local economies from evisceration.
Renationalisation of the railways is set to become a core belief for One-Nation Labour because it provides a means of re-imagining a united, non-devolved Britain. No more rail powers for Scotland and Wales then, let alone the English regions. Whitehall must prioritise, for the good of all. The spirit of 1945 and all that.
We have a very different set of priorities. No grands projets at all. Just the infinitely more useful policy of re-opening lines and stations to provide the fundamental infrastructure of a post-oil world. And for that, Wessex doesn’t need Whitehall poking its nose in. It’s great that attractive new thinking is underway on the railways. It’s a shame that it’s not really that new or really that attractive. Wessex can do much better. Yes, we’re on track, but keep watching those signals.