A lot of Labourites get very excited about the railways. At a fringe event at party conference this afternoon on whether Labour should renationalise the railways, there wasn’t much of a discussion at all. The event was officially a “Rally for rail public ownership”.
Labour’s current policy on rail ownership is a fudge: the party has said that public companies will be allowed to bid for contracts when they expire, though this falls a long way short of wholesale renationalisation. It is a position that none of the speakers wanted to defend. Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle, who used to have the transport brief, came closest, calling it a “bold and sensible offer”. Cue sniggers from the back. “Scared of being branded a Trot,” one audience member opined. “She wants to be Transport Secretary,” said another.
Other speakers were less reticent than Eagle. “People have not believed us when we said that we will deliver social justice,” the North Ayrshire and Arran MP Katy Clark said. “Talking about public sector bids is not good enough.” A pair of Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, including Nancy Platts, who is standing in a top target seat of Brighton, Kemptown, similarly said that they would stand explicitly on a platform of renationalising the railways.
They are not the only ones. A new ComRes survey published today shows that 81 per cent of Labour PPCs advocate the nationalisation of the railways. And the candidates are distinctly un-Blairite on numerous other issues, too. 51 per cent want to scrap the UK’s nuclear deterrent; only 18 per cent say that the deficit should be reduced mainly by cutting spending.
The upshot is that Labour will have to confront plenty of “loony left” headlines from the media before the next election. No political party has ever won a general election facing as hostile a press as Labour will next May; even in the digital age, that is a serious problem for Labour.
If Labour wins, Ed Miliband will face constant pressure to deliver more radical reform to capitalism than he has so far promised. Labour’s backbenchers could prove almost as troublesome for a Prime Minister Miliband as the Tory backbenchers have for Prime Minister Cameron. And if Labour fails to win – possibly even if it is the top party but does not win a majority – it will be divided on the answer why. “Did Miliband lose because he was too left wing, or not left wing enough?” is a question that could tear the Labour party apart.