WeeklyWorker

24.07.2014
Illusions in the 'golden age' of British Rail

National socialist illusions

Labour’s plans for the part-nationalisation of the rail network have caused confusion over at the Morning Star, writes Peter Manson

There was not a little hype following the Labour Party’s three-day national policy forum in Milton Keynes last week.

The NPF had apparently decided upon a “a fundamental rethinking of the basic assumptions around which social democracy has been built for 30 years”, according to Jon Cruddas, head of Labour’s policy review. In fact he described the forum as “a turning point in the history of the Labour Party”, no less.

So what were these monumental decisions that will obviously impact on government policy if Labour wins next year’s general election? After all, the 200-strong NPF considered thousands of policy proposals and amendments in those three days - a supposedly much better form of ‘democracy’ than old-fashioned votes at annual conference. Judging by Cruddas’s comments, some of them must have been really radical.

For example, if elected, Labour will scrupulously abide by Conservative-Liberal Democrat plans for current spending, although it may amend details of the coalition’s capital spending projects. In other words, the age of austerity looks set to continue, despite a move by a tiny minority of delegates to abandon the current trajectory through an emergency post-election budget. Only 14 voted in favour, while 125 solemnly upheld the leadership plans to change nothing.

You see, “this Conservative-led government’s failure to balance the books in this parliament means we will have to make difficult decisions after the next election”, in the words of shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Yes, it must be very “difficult” to change nothing - and then claim you are rewriting history. And Balls has clearly picked up on the coalition style - blame it all on the mess left behind by the last lot.

However, it would be wrong to infer from this that Labour’s policies are identical to those of the coalition parties. Ed Miliband’s plan is, on the one hand, to emphasise for the sake of the rightwing media and the ‘middle ground’ that his party is totally trustworthy and responsible. On the other hand, he aims to appeal to Labour’s traditional working class constituency through minor changes, such as taking powers to limit gas and electricity prices and, as confirmed by the NPF, to partly renationalise the rail network.

By ‘partly’ I mean that Labour will set up a publicly owned rail operator to compete against private franchises on a “level playing field”. In other words, a state-capitalist firm that will bid to run parts of the fragmented network. A token nod in the direction of the left, within the parameters of ‘responsible government’ - it will not even increase current-account spending.

Betrayal?

So you might think that those on the left - not least the ‘official communists’ of the Morning Star - would condemn these plans as a cowardly attempt to avoid simply renationalising the entire rail network. In fact the Star seemed to get its lines crossed in its coverage - with two diametrically opposed positions featuring in its coverage of the NPF in the same issue! Journalist Conrad Landin, who wrote the front-page story, seemed to view the outcome on rail policy as entirely positive, since he began his article: “Transport campaigners hailed the ‘beginning of the end’ for rail franchising yesterday after winning major concessions at Labour’s national policy forum” (July 21).

The “major concessions” - an unattributed phrase that appears twice in the article - seemed to amount to the commitment, in Miliband’s words, to “end the presumption against the public sector”, to conduct a “review” of the franchise system and to possibly remove fare-setting powers from individual companies. Comrade Landin quoted Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, who rather optimistically declared that any “objective review of franchising will lead to the public train operator taking on lines as franchises expire”. Brother Cortes concluded: “Make no mistake: franchising has been given its last rites.”

However, tucked away near the end of the story, which continued on an inside page, was the opinion of Mick Cash, acting general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union. The RMT is, of course, the major rail union, which dwarfs the TSSA, but, since it is no longer affiliated to Labour, it was not represented at the NPF - leaving the negotiations on the rail matters to the likes of Cortes. Brother Cash had a rather different take compared to the TSSA (and compared to comrade Landin, obviously). He was quoted as saying: “We’re crystal-clear - we need full, immediate nationalisation. Anything short of this is a cop-out.”

And the Star’s leader-writer clearly agreed with brother Cash: “Trade union representatives who allowed themselves to be browbeaten into accepting the dog’s breakfast approved by the policy forum may well believe that it marks the ‘beginning of the end’ for rail franchising. But they should ask themselves why, if that is the case, the party leadership didn’t simply propose an end to the franchising system.”

The editorial continues: “Allowing public-sector bodies to bid against the privateers is no solution.” Indeed, “The system is rotten. It has failed and the only thing to do is to get rid of it.” Those like Cortes (and, presumably, Landin) are guilty of “wishful thinking” and “the battle for a publicly owned rail network must continue”.

Interestingly, the Star’s ‘official communist’, national socialist line on ‘public ownership’ had featured in another editorial on the rail network at the beginning of the month. This editorial, which was entitled ‘State-owned - just not by us’, was commenting on the running of the railways under the coalition. The government wants to sideline the state-owned Directly Operated Railways, established by the previous Labour government, which “has made such a success of running the East Coast mainline”. Meanwhile, the rest of the network is in the hands of ‘undesirables’ and this process is continuing (July 5).

For example, “On July 4 the franchise for the Docklands Light Railway in London was awarded to the French company, Keolis, which already has an interest in four other franchises in Britain.” However, Keolis is not a simple, straightforward example of ‘private enterprise’: “The irony is that the majority shareholding in Keolis is held by SNCF, the French state-owned rail corporation.” (Commenting on this in an article two weeks later, Mick Cash claimed that awarding the franchise to Keolis will mean that “fares in London will subsidise fares in Paris” - Morning Star July 19-20).

The editorial also pointed out that “three other rail passenger franchises in Britain are currently operated solely or jointly by Abellio, the international arm of the state-owned near-monopoly, Dutch Railways, while most of our rail freight is now carried by DB Schenker, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, which is owned by the German government”.

So ‘we’ allow “our” rail freight to be run by foreigners. What is more, the same applies to “our railway network” as a whole: “In other words, substantial parts of our railway network are already back in some form of public ownership - except that it’s French, Dutch or German, while British public ownership is squeezed out.”

Socialistic?

From all this, one can conclude the following: state ownership per se is a ‘good thing’ - provided, of course, the state in question controls and administers the territory where its companies operate. So it is highly desirable for, say, the German state to run even part of an industry at home (the whole lot would be far better, of course), but, once state-owned companies spread their tentacles abroad, that suddenly becomes totally undesirable.

What we are talking about in connection to the rail industry is actually state-owned capitalist companies that compete with each other and with private firms. Why should it be regarded as more acceptable if they only do so within a particular national territory?

The whole discussion exposes the national socialist illusion for what it is. Nationalisation, or ‘public ownership’, is not inherently progressive, let alone socialistic. In the past it has routinely been used all over the world to strengthen overall capitalist control. In fact, we in the CPGB contend: “From the point of view of world revolution, programmes for wholesale nationalisation are today objectively reactionary”, since they aim to break up transnational operations into unworkable national units.1

Yes, amongst our immediate demands - ie, those we make here and now, under capitalism - are calls for the nationalisation of, among other things, “basic infrastructure”, which obviously includes the rail network. But such calls are made to further working class interests under the current order, not because we believe them to be a step towards socialism.

Socialism is the political rule of the working class - the transition to the classless, moneyless, stateless, society known as communism.

peter.manson@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. Section 3.7, CPGB Draft programme: www.cpgb.org.uk/home/about-the-cpgb/draft-programme/3.-immediate-demands.