Mehdi Hasan: Renationalise the railways? Please do.

Will Self triumphs on BBC Question Time.

My fellow New Statesman columnist - and the new professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University - Will Self put in a typically brilliant performance on BBC1's Question Time last night, especially on the subject of rail privatisation.

He interrupted a rambling answer from fellow QT panellist and Conservative cabinet minister Eric Pickes to say:

I merely seek to observe that the [rail] subsidy was £1 billion before [when] they were nationalised, in real terms, and it's now £4 billion.

He continued:

The fundamental mistake - and there were many mistakes about the privatisation of the rail system - but the most fundamental mistake was rail travel, your journey to work, is not a fungible good and that means it cannot be exchanged for anything else. You can't get to Guildford station and think: 'Oh I want go to work in London today. I'll go to Mars on this new rocket train that's been provided by this splendid private company'.

It was a ludicrous idea from the get-go and the particular way that they did it with the track hived off from the rail operators has caused absolute chaos, some dreadful crashes and the current predicament that you find yourselves in.

"So what would you do?" asked Pickles. Self replied, to huge applause from the Surrey audience:

I'd renationalise it.

The 16-year rail privatisation experiment has been an utter disaster. Above-inflation increases in UK train fares - that are now the highest in western Europe - make it more and more unpopular as time goes by. Tory ministers, their cheerleaders in the right-wing press and their Blairite fellow-travellers in the Labour Party often forget - or choose to ignore! - that there is a clear majority in favour of renationalisation of the railways - on the left and the right. The inconvenient truth for ministers is that the likes of Bob Crow - and Will Self! - are more in touch with voters than they are. And the recent row over multi-million-pound, taxpayer-funded Network Rail bonuses - which were eventually and reluctantly waived by Network Rail bosses after public outcry - didn't do the privatisation cause much good. It was another reminder of how messed up the system is.

In fact, as transport expert Christian Wolmar wrote back in October 2008, a month after the start of the financial crisis:

[W]hat New Labour refuses to let on is that the railways are effectively largely publicly-owned anyway. Network Rail, which owns the infrastructure, is a company without shareholders that is dependent on government backed debt (to the tune of £20bn), for its survival. It receives billions in annual grants direct from government and is, to all intents and purposes, a state-run enterprise.

Wolmar also pointed out that with Network Rail already in public hands, it would cost little or nothing to "renationalise them", once the train operators decided to hand back their franchises when their terms expired or once they got into financial difficulties.

This isn't just an ideological or political argument; it's financial. A recent study by the Transport for Quality of Life thinktank found that renationalisation could save the taxpayer £1.2 billion a year "through cheaper borrowing costs, removing shareholders' dividends and reducing fragmentation". £300 million alone, said the study, would be saved if train operating companies were taken into public ownership.

It's a no-brainer: the time has come to renationalise the railways. It would be a popular, effective and money-saving move in our current "age of austerity". Ed Miliband and Maria Eagle - are you listening?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

"The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity," declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" - a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain - but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been europhile and eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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