It is 99 Labour conference years ago since our party first accepted Britain’s railways should be nationalised. Prime minister David Lloyd George rejected the maintaining public ownership proposition made to him in 1918 by Alexander Walkden, general secretary of the Railway Clerks Association (RCA). The country’s railways ran better as an integrated entity under emergency state control measures of the hard, austere years of the first world war than they ever did under the fragmented, private rail monopolies of the early industrial era.
Undeterred by Liberal rejection, Walkden commissioned the policy detail that the RCA, the forerunner of the TSSA, would put to Labour’s conference that same year proposing a future Labour government would nationalise rail.
Our Labour Party committed to his motion. It would take 30 years and the great reforming Labur government of Clement Attlee before RCA and Labour policy could be enacted in 1948. But our union and party never gave up on the struggle.
So, it was with a great sense of history and pride yesterday afternoon that listened to the transport debate from conference floor and saw Andy McDonald, the transport secretary, stand on Walkden’s giant shoulders, carrying the standard for rail nationalisation – surely not far off now.
Since Tory privatisation in 1994, the quest to restore rail to the public has been a political hot potato at Labour conference, tossed around by delegates to cause embarrassment to a leadership committed to the market not the many. Not yesterday. At this debate, as so many have commented about others at this conference, the feeling of symbiosis between platform and delegates was of unity of issue and joined-up sense of purpose.
Addressing the rail composite motion Andy committed to implementing the task mandated to him by Labour’s 2017 For The Many manifesto, to bring the railways back into public ownership. The pledge was discussed thoughtfully and with confidence by trade union and CLP delegates, singing from the same hymn sheet about safety, security and accessibility.
Andy laid our union’s near century old policy out clearly – you can’t control what you don’t own. He spoke eloquently about a people’s railway solution as a salve to passengers concerns following the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester where, as TSSA members know only too well, properly staffed stations are key to calm evacuations and quick interaction with emergency services. He deserved the applause for upending the Tory myth that a lone train driver can be solely responsible for the safety and security of multiple carriages carrying cargos of up to a thousand human passengers. He was right to highlight public ownership as a solution to those seriously concerned about accessibility and for passengers who rely on a member of rail staff to help them on and off the train. He remembered too those of us who just want a safe, quiet journey where nothing goes wrong.
The problem that privatisation created was fragmentation. Track and railway stock, staff and stations were split up into separate entities, with their ever-changing fancy liveries and new versions of old names. Railway companies “own” only their staff, so the primary way for privateers to make profits is to hike passenger fares and reduce staff numbers – hence the cull of staff and rise of rip-off fares.
Since 1994, rail fares have risen twice as fast as wages and the three per cent rise proposed this year is our Tory government letting their privateers laugh all the way to the bank. Passengers now pay twice to do up Richard Branson’s wine cellar on the British Virgin Islands – once through extortionate fares and twice through taxation. Taxes are reconfigured by government into subsidies for rail companies. It’s the ultimate scam. No less an authority than Branson himself has described this system as a licence to print money when explaining why he’s in the rail business.
The reduction of trained staff has not gone unnoticed. TSSA has carried out surveys of our members’ morale and they are reporting increased abuse from frustrated passengers angry about late and cancelled trains and high prices. TSSA’s solution is now, once again, our Labour’s solution: to bring control of this public service – our public service! – back into public hands and stop the leak of taxpayers’ money that could be used for investment. Andy was loud and proud and our conference floor was euphoric. What a time of hope we are living through once again. What an era of possibility for the many not the few.
So I say to the sad naysayers whose efforts to spread fake news – that Brexit is the catalyst our manifesto needs to enable nationalisation because it is otherwise prevented by EU competition rules – you are talking rubbish. Sheer tosh. How to nationalise our railways is the stuff of TSSA DNA. So please look and learn from this factually correct next paragraph.
Richard Corbett, MEP for Yorkshire and Humber, told our TSSA/LabourList rally in defence of workers’ rights and EU freedom of movement that European article 345 allows individual states to decide how they run their own infrastructure. He is right! And, precisely, why the French, German and Dutch governments are doing so. The only state that is being prevented from taking control of its railways and investing in more infrastructure is Britain and the only body preventing us is our own government.
The Tory betrayals over the summer in Wales, the midlands and the north of England made by transport butcher-in-chief Chris Grayling have made a mockery of their lips ervice to the “northern powerhouse”. But they’ve hardened our party’s resolve. Connecting businesses with goods and services and allowing commuters to travel to work on time and without breaking the bank is crucial to our future economic investment and not just to and from London.
Only Labour is rallying for rail. Only Labour is the party of rail patriotism. Always was. Always will be. The manifesto mandated Andy to take back control of our industry. We’ve got a shadow cabinet, a PLP, a people’s party and passengers eager to get involved. Roll on the next Labour government. Let’s once again take rail to the service of our people and get on track to an exciting future for rail investment which will transform travel for the many not the few.