JEREMY CORBYN’S claim that Labour “won the argument” at the last election prompted howls of derision from the usual suspects, from the Daily Express to MP Jess Phillips.
But the furore over chaos at Northern Rail, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps saying he is “not prepared” to see it continue to milk its franchise, suggests that there may be elements of truth in his statement.
The railways may be an easy case to make. As Aslef’s Mick Whelan says, they are a natural monopoly. Public opinion was in favour of renationalising the railways long before Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party — the Tories’ original privatisation of the sector was never popular, and Blair broke promises to take it back into public hands he made in 1997.
The absurdly overpriced and inefficient franchising system makes railways a rip-off for everyone who uses them. This is bad for the planet: in a year when Germany is slashing fares by 10 per cent in order to encourage rail travel to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the annual rigmarole of above-inflation fare rises in Britain exposed just how empty are all the government’s promises to address climate change.
Tory contempt for passengers is further expressed through their hostility to railway staff. The drive to remove guards from trains is political, of course, aimed primarily at breaking the power of the rail unions — as Department for Transport official Peter Wilkinson declared in 2016, his aim was to begin a “punch-up” with unions, adding: “We have got to break them.”
Like Thatcher, they are quite prepared to wreck an industry and ruin lives if the goal of defeating trade union power is achieved. The end result of this assault on unions is a heightened risk of actual assaults on trains with no staff available to ensure passengers are kept safe from anti-social behaviour or harassment, or to assist disabled passengers or respond to unexpected situations.
A system geared to maximise profit predictably shears costs to the bone, meaning there is no redundancy to respond not only to emergencies but to predictable variables such as staff sickness — hence the now commonplace spectacle of trains cancelled without warning on routes up and down the country, week after week.
The fact that all candidates to succeed Corbyn at the head of the Labour Party agree on a publicly owned railway does show progress, even if nationalisation is something the Tories continue to bitterly resist. For years, majorities in favour of public ownership of transport, water and energy, not to mention Royal Mail, could be safely ignored in politics. A Westminster consensus that this economic model was a thing of the past meant that perfectly mainstream views across British society rarely got an airing in Parliament.
That has now changed, and not just for rail. The Conservatives were forced to ditch at least the rhetoric of austerity and to promise funding increases to win last month’s election. Johnson was also forced to deny — not very convincingly, given Labour’s exposure of hundreds of pages of negotiations over it — that US firms wanted access to the NHS in trade talks.
That doesn’t necessarily amount to Labour winning the argument. But it does point to the argument having been opened up. An economy based on the needs of the market is increasingly contested. The neoliberal consensus is over.
But the fact that that didn’t translate into victory opens up further questions. If a vote to “get Brexit done” demonstrated understandable anger at three years of Establishment manoeuvring to avoid exactly that, growth in the working-class Conservative vote shows the extent of the labour movement’s retreat from entire communities.
Winning them back will not be a matter of calibrating a smooth pitch for the next general election. It means embedding labour movement culture in the lives of local areas through campaigning, activism and volunteering throughout this and every year.
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