Renationalise? Our railways are already publicly owned…

A frequent – and growing – call on the left in Britain is for the railways to be ‘renationalised’, ‘brought back into public ownership’ or ‘put in the public’s hands again’ – and any other number of similar phrases. It’s an interesting case really in that it’s another example of the left failing in terms of discourse in uniting the country (the phrase ‘bedroom tax’ being an obvious recent exception and success) – even if the vast majority of people do believe rail should be domestically state-owned and run.

Why is the left ‘doing it wrong’ on the rail issue? Because, as the title suggests, our rail network is already basically in public ownership. Just not by us.

According to RMT union research:

Overseas companies, mainly state-owned, now control 65% of Britain’s railways proving that the Government are happy with state ownership as long as it’s not by the British state in the interests of British people.

Yep, 65% foreign ownership – mostly by other governments.

From the Daily Express (of all newspapers…):

Nearly one in four operators are owned wholly or in part by Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway.

SNCF, the French state railway, part-owns six operators.  Three are wholly or part-owned by Dutch state railway Nederlandse Spoorwegen.

Deutsche Bahn owns Chiltern, Cross Country, Grand Central, Tyne & Wear metro and Wales & Borders and part-owns  London overground.

SNCF part-owns Gatwick Express, South Eastern, London  Midland, Southern, First TransPennine Express and Eurostar. Dutch state railways own or part-own Northern, Greater Anglia and Merseyrail.

Why am I dragging up this early-mid 2013 research now? Because UK state-owned East Coast mainline is currently in the process of being privatised…sort of – with the government announcing the final bidders last Friday. East Coast, the current (fantastic) operator of the London-Edinburgh line, is banned from bidding for the contract now up for renewal, after the government had to take over the network due to market failure a few years ago.

So the bid is an interesting case in ‘privatisation’ for a key reason – a joint bid by Eurostar and French firm Keolis is being permitted to apply to run the service, but our own East Coast is not. So in an appeal to private-sector virtue and ‘competition’ we have 55% SNCF (French state rail)-owned Eurostar alongside majority-SNCF owned Keolis bidding to run the line…while our own national service can’t. Bizarre.

It’s hypocritical because the government’s declared rationale for the sale is that:

For our railways to continue to grow we need strong private sector partners who can invest and innovate in ways that deliver a world class service.

For a start, East Coast already provides a world class service – it’s certainly one of the cheapest and has delivered over £600m to the treasury since the government took it over in 2009 (after National Express failed miserably to ‘deliver’).

Meanwhile, FirstGroup, as well as Virgin and Stagecoach (together) are also bidding to run the line. This is interesting because Stagecoach have a 49% stake in Virgin rail. Very competitive [sarc] – particularly as it’s supposedly a ‘joint venture’ anyway. FirstGroup also happen to run lines part-owned by mostly state-owned Keolis. So ‘re-privatisation’? Not really. ‘Competition’, ‘free-markets’ etc etc.? Certainly not.

Raising this isn’t an appeal to nationalism, merely a case study in the contradictions of the neoliberal ideology that dominates the British political arena. Through understanding that the government doesn’t really care who owns our services and bleeds them dry as long as a) the owners hopefully aren’t us and b) corporations/capitalism get to make a killing, we can see the political ideology that drives our national politics for what it really is – socialism for the rich.

This was best highlighted in the equally questionable ‘privatisation’ of Royal Mail last year. In order to privatise it ‘successfully’ – i.e. to make sure companies got the most out of tax-payers – not only did the government set a ridiculously low selling price but they were also simultaneously nationalised Royal Mail’s pension fund to sweeten up the offer for investors.

How do we get around this and reassert domestic popular control of our infrastructure? Getting rid of capitalism altogether is one obvious/implausible answer, but until then, we need to deconstruct the decisions and discourses politicians use and show them for what they really are. A sham and a facade. And (I would say this wouldn’t I?) to get behind the only party that is pushing for genuine public ownership of rail (and water and energy for that matter – the Greens.

On top of this, and finally, the left needs to change its language about rail ownership – instead of calling for ‘renationalisation’, we should call for some form of ‘local/British public ownership’ – a call that would win even more support from right across the spectrum than the slightly inaccurate/misleading terms used now. Language isn’t everything (and I’m not one to jump up and down about ‘value-framing theory’ etc.), but it is one good weapon in our arsenal.

So it’s local public ownership the left should be demanding – e.g. regional municipalisation – not just any old state running our services. And who’s to say it’s not possible? Labour are making promising noises – with a few big pushes they could well embrace the idea in government post-2015…


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