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25 April 2024

Labour’s rail plans show Keir Starmer’s cautious populism

The commitment to take the industry back into public ownership is a victory for the soft left.

By Freddie Hayward

Labour has announced plans to nationalise the railway operators by folding them into a publicly owned company, Great British Railways, on a rolling basis as the contracts come up for renewal. The idea is that this will allow Labour to take the railways back into public ownership without large compensation bills.

As George writes in an excellent interview with Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary: “The Sheffield Heeley MP, 36, who is one of the shadow cabinet’s leading ‘soft left’ members (alongside Angela Rayner and Ed Miliband), is unambiguous about the alternative she would pursue: renationalisation. ‘We will bring those remaining operators – there are ten left on the railway contracts model – back into public ownership,’ she said, 30 years on from the Major government’s privatisation. ‘All of them will expire within the first term of a Labour government either on their full contract or on their core contract.’”

Although this policy is not a surprise, it has divided the party in the past. In 2022, Rachel Reeves pulled nationalisation when she announced her fiscal rules (or, to be more precise, when she announced that Labour would at some point announce fiscal rules). She said there was no money for mass nationalisation. A split emerged. The party quickly clarified that its shadow chancellor meant to say that while the fiscal rules apply there was a “positive role for rail in public ownership”. That compromise is what we see today.

This is a win for the soft left – and for Louise Haigh in particular. (I think that Haigh’s commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail in her interview with George could be more consequential.) She was a mildly surprising survivor of Keir Starmer’s last reshuffle and has a relatively low media profile. (“All shadow cabinet are holed up writing policy!” one Labour aide protested to me yesterday when I put this to them.) This rail news is affirmation of her present security within the party.

In terms of the politics, the announcement is broadly consistent with what we’ve come to expect. In the press release, Labour has buried the nationalisation news beneath business-friendly plans for contactless payments, streamlined pricing and a Passenger Standards Authority. Haigh describes herself as “passenger-in-chief”. Customers before ideology; country before party, etc.

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Labour is leaning into a more active state here, à la Great British Energy. Prefix dumbed-down Corbynite policies with “Great British”, slap on a Union flag, and you’re on your way to the tepid and cautious economic populism that is becoming a recurring Starmerist motif. It’s ecumenical populism; PR populism; populism by halves; populism, most importantly, without an enemy.

Today’s announcement is one tiny way in which Starmer has kept his promise to Labour members to be an electable radical. He has ditched almost the entire Corbynite 2017 platform, which he promised would inspire his project – except this.

And yet, the contrast with 2017 is telling. Starmer is not touting a victory against surplus value-harvesting big business. This is sold as practical, inevitable almost – a tactic that was so effective for Tony Blair. In case anyone thought this was the start of a campaign to rebalance power away from business, Rachel Reeves has boasted to the Times today that Labour will be more pro-business than Blair himself. A win for the soft left, sure, but a soft win at that.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

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