Waiting for a change of owner

Skyrocketing fares, worsening services and government subsidies higher than ever - all prove that pr

Exorbitant ticket prices, lack of investment, overstretched commuter trains, fragmented ownership and management structures and sky-high profits, together with unjustified dividends to shareholders. This is the state of Britain's railways, and the Tories' legacy to the country. It's time we began to think the previously unthinkable and progressively bring the rail operating companies back under public control.

Less than a month ago, Network Rail announced profits of £1.48bn. Many readers may not be aware, or have forgotten, that our Labour government made Network Rail into a "not for dividend" company, which is not answerable to shareholders. As a consequence, all this profit is being reinvested back into infrastructure.

Why, when rail services are increasingly un reliable and ticket prices have soared, can't this model be extended to the train operators?

It is a horrifically complicated picture: in 1996 the Tories, under John Major, were responsible for not only the wholesale privatisation of our rail services but also their fragmentation. The Tories introduced destructive - and dangerous - competitive tensions into the heart of the railways. We are still living with the consequences.

British Rail was split into more than a hundred different parts, including Railtrack, 25 train operators, 14 maintenance companies, three rolling stock operators and two freight operators. Far from providing efficiency or improvement, rail performance, measured by punctuality and safety, declined. Service targets have not regained the levels they were at in the final years of the much-maligned British Rail. The Conservatives' disastrous new rail structure resulted in soaring public subsidies at the same time as ticket prices rose sharply; but now the taxpayer was subsidising private profiteers instead of a national public asset.

Privatisation was meant to improve services and help lever in private investment. Instead, services declined, and today any private investment in the railways is paid for by passengers and taxpayers. An estimated £800m a year is taken out of the industry in the form of profitable returns to private lenders and investors.

This adds up to £6bn of public money put into private pockets since 1996. And what have travellers received in return? Deteriorating services and rocketing prices. By the government's own reckoning, public subsidy of the railways has now reached an almighty £4.5bn a year, of which £1.4bn is paid annually to the train operators. Yet, since 1997, the cost of rail travel to consumers has increased by almost 53 per cent.

It is time for Labour to act decisively in relation to the railways. Economically, socially and environmentally, bringing the railways back under public control makes sense and the imminent renewal of operating franchises, alongside the change in the leadership and deputy leadership of the party, provides unique opportunities.

Ten of the 19 rail operating franchises are due to expire between now and 2013, and four are due to start being negotiated this year. The cost to the public purse of this tendering process is £3m-£4m a time. Why not bypass this wasteful exercise and let Network Rail operate franchises in the same "not for profit" image? This would mean that the majority of passenger services could be taken back into public ownership by 2013, at no cost to the taxpayer.

It is not as if the private sector has proved itself vastly more efficient than the public sector. Network Rail is not the only good example of the public sector running services more effectively. The experience of South Eastern Trains, which was awarded Connex's contract in 2003 and outperformed its private sector counterparts with less public subsidy, demonstrates that the public sector can run passenger services more effectively and efficiently and provide better value for money than its private sector comparators.

The government's franchising policy has also been exposed by the recent failure of GNER to deliver its franchise commitments. The whole process was brought into stark focus with the warning from the former head of GNER Chris topher Garnett, who said: "Other train companies were also making bids with very low margins that could prove unsustainable."

The House of Commons transport select committee delivered a scathing verdict on the current rail model in a recent report, with specific criticism of the franchising process: "We agree wholeheartedly with the general objectives of improving passenger services and maximising the value for money achieved from government subsidies. But we do not believe that the current system of passenger rail franchising can achieve those aims in the long term."

In order to move the industry forward and provide the best value to both the taxpayer and passenger, the government must move away from its rigid adherence to the failed privatised model. Across the majority of the network there is little or no competition, and the private sector is taking only a marginal amount of the risk involved in running and investing in infrastructure. The private sector is entirely confident that the government will not allow any part of the passenger rail network to fail and therefore makes a limited commitment in terms of long-term investment in the industry.

As well as making financial, social and environmental sense, delivering cheaper, more punctual and efficient services is a vote winner, particularly in the south-east commuter-belt "marginals" on which new Labour has focused so much attention in the past ten years.

Since 2004, constituency Labour parties and trade unions have voted overwhelmingly to put rail services back into public ownership. I believe the time is right to start that process. It is not a matter of left-wing ideology, but pragmatic good sense. Skyrocketing prices, unreliable services and a lack of integration between routes and services are pushing people away from the railways and alienating them from the Labour Party.

The alternative is congested roads, higher accident rates and increased pollution.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham and a candidate for Labour's deputy leadership

http://www.joncruddas.org.uk

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.