THE BLOG
08/05/2014 13:17 BST | Updated 07/07/2014 06:59 BST

A Labour Offer To Take Back Rail Would Be Big, Bold, and a Winner

It's widely - infamously - known that the British taxpayer subsidises the rail network to a greater cost than when the network was in state hands. What a fantastic racket these companies are running!

For the past three years, I've been commuting, during uni semesters, from a little village in Staffordshire into the centre of Birmingham, four days a week. That's four trains a day, and two of those trains are pretty much guaranteed to be a total nightmare. I travel into Birmingham New Street station, which, as everyone who uses it regularly knows, is a malfunctioning, headache-inducing hellhole, currently being rebuilt and perpetually in chaos. In the three years that I have been a regular commuter, the quality of the service provided has deteriorated, and the price I pay for that service has gone up. It might just be me who hates rail travel, but I don't think that's the case (I have seen enough red-faced, fuming, people-shaped blobs of hate storming around the platforms of the West Midlands to discount the prior hypothesis).

Rail services in the UK, like most other things, are privatised. However, they aren't fully privatised - not just anyone can rock up and start running trains from station to station. In much the same way that energy and water services operate, the rail network has been put out to tender, with companies applying for the franchises. This is a system that gives commuters all of the negatives of privatisation without any of the benefits. Competition can't drive prices down or improve the service, because the contracts run for years at a time, competitors can't operate on the same lines, and punishments for poor service are practically non-existent (witness the £72m fine for National Express, on a franchise worth £1.4bn). Meanwhile, the fees go up on a regular basis, the service gets worse, profits go up, investment in the rail network stagnates, and commuters get hammered from all directions. A pure privatisation model would be no solution to these problems. It would almost certainly lead to a failure in provision for 'unprofitable' rural lines serving smaller communities (those people do still need to use the rail system, you know), and would anyway be practically impossible to run effectively. The answer, clearly, is renationalisation - something at which certain figures in the Labour party, most notably a group of prospective parliamentary candidates for 2015, have been hinting.

Ed Miliband's Labour leadership has been characterised by a fury against markets that are failing - energy, for instance. There are few market failures more obvious to the British people than the rail market. A poll running on the Guardian website shows 92% approval for rail renationalisation. People aren't stupid, and they know when a service isn't working. Trains are frequently overcrowded, delayed and overpriced. It's also widely - infamously - known that the British taxpayer subsidises the rail network to a greater cost than when the network was in state hands. What a fantastic racket these companies are running! If someone came up to you and offered to buy your house for less than it was worth, smash all of the windows, rip up all the carpets, throw out all the white goods, and then charged you more than your previous mortgage payments to keep living in it, you'd ask them to please leave, politely but firmly (we keep things civil round here, I'm sure).

The problem for Labour is that they are nervous of Conservative attacks portraying them as far-left. The party is still, a generation later, scarred by the elections of the 1980s, when Labour was painted as a collective of Soviet Marxists about to nationalise everything from Land's End to John O'Groats. You see this narrative still today, in the Tory newspapers which label Miliband 'Red Ed' and talk of his Soviet-style plans on rent control. It's pretty pathetic, in all honesty, and one of the reasons why political debate in this country is being held back. The Conservatives are locked into a set of ideological blinkers, rendering them incapable of recognising any idea that sounds vaguely like state intervention, or goes against the principle that free markets are the Best Thing Ever. Labour, meanwhile, aren't really trapped in an ideological box like a bad mime artist, but are terrified of appearing as if they are, because they believe that's why they lost to Thatcher all those times. What this means is that sensible Conservatives who want to use government to help people aren't listened to, that Labour try desperately not to look like a party of democratic socialists despite having that description written on the back of their membership cards, and that good solutions for problems get jettisoned by both sides.

Labour needs to have the courage of their convictions, and approach the issues that face this country head-on. If the best way to fix a problem involves looking like you're left-wing, then that doesn't matter, as long as the problem does indeed get fixed. A decade and a half of pretending to be just softer-around-the-edges Tories didn't work for Labour in the end, and it won't work in 2015. Rail renationalisation, if not of the whole network then at least of failing franchises, would be exactly the kind of bold move that reshaped the political narrative. It would bring hundreds of thousands of votes to Labour, and it would help to ease the woes of millions of commuters who dread the morning rush hour. If the solution is the right one, then, sometimes, it's alright to be a little bit of a socialist.