At last weekends Co-op Party conference there was much discussion about Jeremy Corbyns first week as labour leader. The Co-op party historically has been firmly on the moderate wing of the Labour Party loyally supporting whoever is the leader. There is no doubt however that Corbynism in terms at least of opening up Labours policy process to new thinking has been warmly received by co-operators.
One example of that new thinking that was welcomed at conference was his advocacy of a Peoples Railway. As far back as 2011 Co-operatives UK published a pamphlet by the recent London Mayoral candidate and all round railway buff Christian Wolmar advocating co-operative ownership for Britain’s railways.
The model is what is called in co-op circles multi-stakeholder meaning that unlike a consumer or a worker co-op there are different groups represented in the ownership structure. In the case of the railways the key stakeholders are the government – representing the national interest in such a crucial piece of infrastructure, railway workers, who keep it moving and provide the essential service and the rail users those who depend on and contribute to the service through their fares and season tickets.
It would be superfluous to argue yet again how the present system is confusing, over complicated and creates unnecessary competition between providers, thereby driving up costs and fares to extortionate levels. The question is how we change it and that is clearly the stage that the Jeremy Corbyn proposals have now rreached.
The scope for a people’s railway is huge for example the Welsh Government are seriously discussing how to bid for the Wales and Borders franchise to turn it into a not for profit business integrated into a regulated national Welsh bus service thereby providing an effective Wales wide public transport system.
A proposal for Rail Cymru, supported by Aslef, the Co-op party and the Socialist Environment Association written by Professor Paul Salverson was published in 2012. The irony is of course that the current Wales and the Borders franchise run by Arriva trains is owned by the Deutsches Bundesbahn which in turn is owned by the Federal Republic of Germany. So the take over of this franchise by a not for profit co-op would be a form of privatisation!
This is the Alice in Wonderland world of rail franchising the so called radical Scottish Nats gave the Scot Rail franchise to Abellio or Nederlandse Spoorwegen the Dutch national rail company! So clearly they are not against nationalisation as long is its not our nation doing the nationalising!
One of the exciting things about a co-operative model is the potential for very local micro-franchises working with Passenger Transport Authorities and local rail partnerships to create new services. This model would immediately stop the £200million of public subsidy leaking out of the railways in profits for shareholders.
Some estimates are that over a quarter of the total £4billion in public subsidy are the “fragmentation” costs the transfer payments and duplication costs between the train operating companies, the rolling stock companies and network rail.
There are also huge knock on benefits in public procurement and line improvements by having a more unified approach. More rational planning in electrification programs and rolling stick procurement could bring substantial cost savings. No wonder bringing the railways back into public ownership has over 60% popular support a figure that has increasing over time.
Furthermore the example of the London North eastern franchise shows that they can be bought back into public ownership at almost no cost. The Tory commitment to a privatised railway is a triumph of ideology over common sense.
Anyone who thinks these ideas are extreme needs to get out more. Christian Wolmars original ideas where endorsed by the hardly left Andrew, now Lord, Adonis. There is no doubt in my mind that the original Herbert Morrison model of public ownership did not give the public or the workers in the state industries any meaningful say in their operations making privatisation that much easier.
The Tory critics to Jeremy Corbyn’s peoples railway idea are in fact right it is indeed ideological and it will certainly be a joy to ride! .