"In the UK we pay one of the highest public subsidies, some of the highest fares and yet receive one of the worst services in Europe." Photograph: Getty Images.
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Rail privatisation has failed on every count - but there is an alternative

The success of the state-run East Coast Main Line proves it's time to bring the other rail franchises under public control.

Today marks 20 years since the privatisation of the railways when the Major government passed the Railways Act. You would struggle to find anybody that believes the promises made have been met. The free-market experiment with our railways has delivered a poor service, with high fares and no sign of these increases being curbed or significant improvements to the service we receive.

When National Express withdrew from running the East Coast Main Line there were concerns that the state-owned Directly Operated Railways (DOR) would not be able to deliver a good service. But not only has DOR succeeded in doing so, it has also just returned a £200m surplus to the Treasury, rather than to shareholders. It’s time we brought the other rail franchises under public control as they come up for renewal. And while train operators might legitimately argue that DfT control of rolling stock procurement, accessibility investment and Network Rail’s control of the track infrastructure, pose constraints on their service delivery, it is difficult to see how other parts of the rail industry could be responsible for the appalling failings of rail operators. These include key customer issues such as reliability, lack of real-time customer service information and dirty trains.

It’s not just DOR which has successfully run a railway. Transport for London (TfL) took control of franchising London overground services in 2007 and is now operating with some of the highest public satisfaction and punctuality levels of any railway in the country. Whilst the Mayor needs to control his inflation-busting fare rises, TfL’s running of the Overground has been a success, scoring highly with passengers content with the service delivered. In addition, this has allowed the Overground to be worked into the wider TfL network and fully integrated, making it an even more useful part of our transport network. The key factor of local management and accountability has added real value in terms of service quality; and efficiency has been improved because of TfL’s determination to focus on the value for money the public receives as opposed to maximising shareholder dividends

Privatising the railways, with the complex and fragmented ownership and management structure that has resulted, was clearly a mistake, with even David Willetts admitting as much. The decision by John Major to follow the prescriptions of the Adam Smith Institute laid the foundations for the mess we see today. At the time we were promised a system that would improve services, with Major telling parliament in February 1993: "franchises will provide a better, cheaper and more effective service for the commuter."

The simple fact is that in the UK we pay one of the highest public subsidies, some of the highest fares and yet receive one of the worst services in Europe. Since privatisation, fares have increased above inflation for a large number of routes and the ticketing system is ludicrously complicated. TfL has demonstrated that it is possible for a public provider to deliver high standards of service and a straight forward integrated ticketing system.

It’s been said before, but we must keep the pressure up. DOR must be allowed to bid for the franchises as they come up for renewal. Those who want to continue with a dogmatic free-market approach must follow their own logic. If they believe private companies are superior to the public sector, why should they worry about competing with DOR? The very fact the government are allowing foreign state-backed railways to bid for our franchises but not our own state-backed company is ludicrous. This isn’t about a 'lurch to the left', or returning to the 1970s, this is about getting the best service at a price that is affordable for passengers.

Closer to home in London, the first step should be to give control of the commuter routes serving the capital to TfL. This is something even the ardently pro-market Boris Johnson supports. Unfortunately, he hasn’t yet been able to convince his colleagues in government to hand him the reins, but this is something that government should do. They probably worry about commuters in Kent reacting against London’s Mayor having control of some of their commuter services, but the reality is that passengers in the wider south east would see improvements in their journeys to work in London.

We can carry on down the path of current railway privatisation and accept ever higher fares, high public subsidy and poor service, but we have a choice. I don’t know about you, but 20 years from now I’d rather be discussing something else rather than why 40 years of railway privatisation has failed. Politics is about the art of the possible; it is entirely possible to allow DOR to bid for rail franchises and it is entirely possible to allow TfL to run regional services that come into London. It is about time we made it happen, otherwise we’ll see more wasted years with passengers picking up the bill for failure.

Val Shawcross is transport spokeswoman for the London Assembly Labour Group 

Val Shawcross is transport spokeswoman for the London Assembly Labour Group 

Photo: Getty
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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).