Following the government’s unveiling of a transport ‘overhaul’ plan last Thursday including nationalisation of the railway system, many on social media were left puzzled. Railway nationalisation was a core policy of the 2019 Labour manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn, and in principle has always been contradictory to Conservative privatisation of publicly owned services.
Through #CorbynWasRight, many on Twitter voiced this confusion and anger. What Jeremy Corbyn was mocked for by Tories just a couple of years ago has now been unveiled and rebranded as a new idea. The nationalisation of railways was a part of sweeping plans to bring necessities like water, energy, and more into public hands under a Labour government. Privatisation has wrecked the railway industry and induced high ticket prices as well as constant delays and cancellations. Many are pointing out that this blatant infrastructure issue has forced Boris Johnson’s hand to contradict the bourgeois class politics his party have always diligently followed. But is this truly the case?
The railways were nationalised previously under British Rail, but over decades of Conservative governments they were gradually fractured and privatised. What was once a cheap and reliable mode of transport was soon unrecognizable. Today, train franchises have what are essentially monopolies of their routes. They have no incentive to improve or cheapen service because frankly, there are no other options for travelers.
This lack of incentive for infrastructure improvement was starkly shown in a CrossCountry train report from just a few years ago. The report showed that out of the company’s £23,080,000 in 2017 annual profit, £20,000,000 was distributed to shareholders as dividends. Instead of this profit being reinvested into aging train infrastructure, it’s being pocketed by private railway franchises.
Corbyn’s plan for an integrated railway system showed great promise for just this reason. It was a solid basis to update and improve the railways. No longer would ownership in the industry be sponging money out of a hallmark of national transportation. British train travel has the potential to be one of the most efficient in the world, just as so many other industries would with sufficient investment.
Upon closer look of the Tory railway plan, one discovers that it’s not full nationalisation. What was described by Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps is more like a national oversight organization rather than an integrated system. This is a watered down version of the 2019 Labour plan, leaving big decisions and profits, down to the select few railways corporations.
The truth of the matter is the Tories are trying to mitigate structural issues with minor changes; bullet holes with band-aids. They understand the need for nationalisation, but have special interests withholding them from proper fixes.
Tory austerity, deception, and corruption continues to be central to the shortfalls of modern Britain. As the country rebuilds post COVID-19, these shortcomings are only going to become more apparent.