Ed Miliband speaks to supporters at Redbridge on May 1, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's new rail plan: the full details

Party vows to end "ideological obsession" with privatisation by allowing the state to bid for franchises. 

One of the biggest decisions that will be taken at Labour's National Policy Forum, which opens in Milton Keynes tomorrow (and runs until Sunday), will be over the party's rail policy. As has long been known, Labour will pledge to reform the franchising system to allow state and not-for-profit firms to bid for contracts as they expire (in contrast to the coalition's dogmatic allegiance to the private sector). But transport unions have been pushing the party to go further and promise to automatically return franchises to public ownership. 

Ahead of the NPF, however, a source close to Jon Cruddas has said that "there is now general agreement across the Labour movement" around the package proposed by the leadership. This includes a pledge to legislate to allow a public sector comparator to compete with private firms for franchises "on a genuinely level playing field". 

Billed as the biggest proposed reform of the railways since privatisation, it also features a commitment to create a new overarching body, accountable to parliament, tasked with implementing a national strategy for the railways. This would bring Network Rail and a new passenger rail body together to co-ordinate passenger operations, manage infrastructure, oversee stations and ticketing, and ensure customer satisfaction across the network. 

As part of its plan to ease the living standards crisis, Labour will also pledge to cap annual fare rises on every route, simplify price structures and create a new legal right to the cheapest ticket. And it will promise to devolve regional and commuter services in an attempt to improve local transport, integrating trains, buses and trams - a plan modelled on Transport for London. 

A source close to Cruddas said: 

There is now general agreement across the Labour movement around Jon's bold package for how we reform the way our railways are run. We want to get rid of the Tories’ failed franchising model and an ideological obsession which puts privatisation ahead of common sense - without going back to the old days of British Rail.

Instead, Labour is determined to face up to the need for bigger reforms which meet the challenges facing our creaking transport system in the 21st Century. 

The package being discussed by the NPF this weekend goes beyond the public versus private debate. It would deliver a broader, radical reform agenda to save money and stop passengers being ripped off. It would allow us to plan railways that will serve our country as a whole and local communities better.

Above all, it would put right the mistakes made 20 years ago and put the taxpayer and rail passengers first.

Since 2010, commuter fares have increased by 20 per cent, leaving UK fares at least 30 per cent more expensive than those in other countries. Labour concedes that the franchising model adopted after privatisation in 1994 has delivered some improvements, but argues that a one-size-fits-all approach has failed to secure the best deal from private operators, with the collapse of the West Coast franchise process costing more than £50m. 

The task for Miliband will now be to build a consensus around this package. The proposal will be discussed in amendment meetings tomorrow followed by a vote of delegates on Sunday. Based on conversations with Labour sources tonight, the leadership is now confident of winning majority approval for the plan. 

Here's the motion that will be debated tomorrow:

"Since the late 1990s there has been significant investment in the railways and passenger numbers have grown sharply. But it is now clear that the rail system is not delivering a fair deal for passengers or the taxpayer, almost 20 years on from the botched privatisation of the railways. Both public subsidy and fares are higher than in other countries, and there is no 'guiding mind' overseeing the railways, planning investment and ensuring results. We have also seen a chaotic franchising process in recent years that has cost millions. To tackle these problems the next Labour government will:

"Review this government's failed franchising process as a priority, after the chaos of recent years, to safeguard taxpayer and passenger interests and put in place a system that is fit for purpose.

"Learn the lessons of East Coast, where we have seen the benefits of a not-for-dividend operator running rail lines, by legislating to allow a public sector operator to be able take on lines and challenge the train operators on a genuinely level playing field to secure value for money for passengers and taxpayers.

"Devolve decisions over the running of regional and local services, including to Scotland and Wales, so that areas can bring together trains, buses, ferries and trams into a single network.

"Tackle the monopoly market for rail rolling stock by giving Network Rail greater responsibility for developing a long term plan for procurement and leasing of new rolling stock.

"Create a new guiding mind for the railways, bringing Network Rail together with a new passenger rail body to contract routes, co-ordinate services, oversee stations and ensure customer satisfaction across the network.

"Ease the pressure on fare payers with the efficiencies these reforms release and by capping annual fare rises on every route, simplifying fare structures and creating a new legal right to the cheapest ticket."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser