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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.