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25 July 2022

Where does Labour really stand on rail nationalisation?

Confusion over the party’s stance on public ownership has muddied Keir Starmer’s economic message.

By Freddie Hayward

Keir Starmer is the Goldilocks of radicalism. He’s tried throughout his leadership to get it just right, to distance himself from the Corbyn era while maintaining some of the policy commitments of that time.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, stumbled on the problem with that strategy in an interview with the BBC this morning. In answer to a question about nationalising rail, energy and water companies she said that “spending billions of pounds on nationalising things… just doesn’t stack up against our fiscal rules”. However, Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, had told the journal of the train drivers’ union Aslef four months ago that Labour was “totally committed to public ownership” of the railways, as it was in 2019 and 2017.

A Labour spokesperson said later that Reeves was saying Labour would be “pragmatic” about rail ownership. No one seems to have told Haigh: she soon restated Labour’s commitment to nationalisation on Twitter. When asked about the issue this morning after a speech setting out his economic vision, Starmer sided with Reeves, saying he wanted to be “pragmatic about [nationalisation] rather than ideological”. 

Where does this leave the party? Starmer’s comment will cement the perception among the left of the party that he has abandoned the pledges he made during his leadership bid. No surprise there. But it’s interesting why many want public ownership in the next Labour manifesto. Part of the reason is because it’s so popular. According to a recent YouGov poll, 60 per cent of people are in favour of the public ownership of railways.

So why won’t Labour promise it? In the face of the cost-of-living crisis and rising inflation, Starmer wants to fight the next election on creating a sustainably growing economy. “Growth, growth, growth,” was the mantra of his speech this morning. A debate with the government about nationalisation does not fit easily into that strategy, nor will it help shed what Starmer sees as the baggage of the 2019 general election defeat.

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But if Labour isn’t going to brandish this popular policy, then it will need something else that polls equally well among voters. Starmer wanted today to be about his vision for the economy, but because of poor communication and disunity, the focus is yet again on whether the Labour leader has just the right amount of radicalism.

[See also: Why Keir Starmer has borrowed the Tories’ “magic money tree” attack line]

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