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Louise Haigh: Labour manifesto will pledge rail renationalisation

The shadow transport secretary on her plan to take private operators back into public ownership.

By George Eaton

In recent years, the mere mention of Britain’s railways has prompted grim laughter. For too many commuters, the simple act of travelling to work has become an arduous odyssey characterised by repeated delays, cancellations and overcrowding.

The woman who has vowed to end this farce is Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary. “We know the current model has completely failed,” Haigh said when we met in her parliamentary office in Portcullis House, Westminster. “What we’ve seen from our research with voters, particularly Tory voters or ex-Tory voters, is that they now see it as a symbol of decline.” Britain, after all, created the world’s first railway line in 1825.

“Our railways are an international embarrassment, a symbol of a country that no longer works and can no longer get the basics right.”

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.”

This includes the Chiltern, Greater Anglia, East Midlands, Great Western and West Coast rail lines, currently operated by firms such as Arriva, FirstGroup and Govia (seven other operators in Britain, including East Coast, Northern and the TransPennine Express, are already in public hands). By waiting until contracts expire, Haigh emphasised, Labour could “transition the private operators back into public ownership without having to pay compensation and use taxpayers’ money”. 

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Some inside Labour have speculated that the policy – one of a select few that survives from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – will not feature in the party’s election manifesto. But Haigh is unequivocal: “Yes,” she immediately replied when I asked whether the plan would be included. This is accompanied by a “full commitment to legislation in the first King’s Speech”. 

The new system would be overseen by an independent body: Great British Railways, the “guiding mind” that the government has long promised but failed to deliver. 

“This will be a consciously new system and it will be the first time in history that the railways will be set up to deliver for passengers because, over the last 30 years, they’ve delivered partly on behalf of shareholders and partly on behalf of Network Rail [the infrastructure body]. British Rail was set up and run by engineers so this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually reform the railways from top to bottom and make sure they work for passengers, the economy and the taxpayer.”

Haigh argues that renationalisation would deliver “significant savings”: £700m in addition to the £1.5bn promised by the former transport secretary Grant Shapps from his limited reforms. “Some of that is obviously dividends and profits not going out to private shareholders or performance bonuses that won’t need to be paid out.

“Ours is a remarkably inefficient model – independent reports have said that it is 40 per cent less efficient than our European counterparts. It is such a fragmented and confused system. Every operator has its own marketing department, HR department and IT department. Those will be simplified into one body.”

What is her response to critics who argue that public ownership will lead to reduced investment as the railways compete with other priorities such as schools and hospitals?

“The taxpayer can’t afford the current model and we really have been throwing good money after bad for too long,” she said. “The current system leaks so much money in waste but also to private operators who frankly have not been serving passengers. And that’s why we need to set up a model that is far more efficient, less wasteful and will reinvest any of those savings back into the rail network.”

As well as renationalising the railways, Labour has pledged to end the ban on publicly owned bus companies and establish Great British Energy, a new publicly owned clean-energy company. Why not extend this principle to other areas such as water?

“It would cost the taxpayer billions of pounds to bring water back into public ownership and we’re just not in a fiscal position to do so,” Haigh said with a disciplined reference to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s “iron-clad fiscal rules”. “But that doesn’t mean that we’re not prepared to take bold action and Steve Reed [the shadow environment secretary] has set out really tough regulatory reforms including criminal sanctions against water company directors that spill sewage into our seas.”

Following the most sustained period of rail-strike action since privatisation, Haigh said that she would take “a consciously different approach” to relations with the trade unions. Her strategy would be modelled on that of the Labour-run Welsh government, which limited strike action by treating the unions as social partners rather than adversaries.

“Of course we’d want to modernise railway practices but we’d want to make sure we did that in a way that was constructive and avoided any industrial disputes.”

Haigh confirmed that Labour was committed to building Northern Powerhouse Rail, a new east-to-west line across the north of England, describing it as an “enormous priority”. She added that while the party would not revive the second phase of HS2, which the government scrapped last year, “we will have to look at infrastructure capacity north of Birmingham because the government’s plans will currently worsen capacity there.

“One of the failures of HS2 was that it focused so much on the increased speed and reduced journey times rather than the additional capacity that a brand new line would have created.”

Until the general election, as Labour’s campaign director Morgan McSweeney never ceases to remind the shadow cabinet, all of these plans remain hypothetical. But how confident is Haigh about the party’s chances?

“We have the best chance I’ve ever known but I am very concerned that the feeling among the public is that we’ve already won,” Haigh said. “I hear this conversation on the doorstep all the time, that we’ve got it in the bag. I worry therefore that people will stay at home or risk their votes elsewhere. So we’re still out fighting for every vote.”

[See also: Andrew Marr: Goya’s lessons for a world at war]

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