If one ever wanted to see the logical conclusion of Thatcherite public policy, they need look no further than the state of the public transport network across Britain today. In a fragmented, market-driven environment, the British people are rightfully angry when their needs are second placed to the need for private companies to return ever bigger profits for their shareholders. A Labour government must commit to provide a new and radical approach to public transport, and ensure that all money invested is going into services, and not lining operating companies’ pockets.
The legacy of Thatcherism has been to reduce Britain’s most well-used public transport services, buses and overground trains, to little more than the off-shoot arms of multinationals trying to win an ever greater slice of the transport pie. The 1985 Transport Act deregulated the buses, forcing competition onto services. Outside of London, where transport is still overseen by Transport for London, the result has been the death of municipally-run bus services across the country, leaving local councils and communities at the mercy of the whims of organisations whose sole aim is to turn a profit.
In railways, too, after the 1993 privatisation, multinationals have made billions out of passengers, hiking fares above inflation, and hitting commuters in their pockets. And yet the recent scandal around the West Coast Mainline franchising proves just how wasteful and inefficient the current system of managing British rail is, with companies deliberately overpromising what they can deliver to win contracts, with no possible hope of delivering. Once a company gets the franchise, they can dictate the terms of service until the conclusion of their contract.
Public transport is by its very nature monopolistic – the idea that you can make some kind of rational, economically-driven decision on the basis of which service to choose or which operator to select is a fantasy dreamt up in the corridors of Conservative Party HQ. What matters is who controls that monopoly; should it be private companies who only care about profits, or should it be democratically elected governments and councils? Labour must make argue for the latter.
In the case of buses, this radical approach should come in the form of local authorities, and local people themselves, having real power over how their transport is planned and operated. For our railways, only through a nationally organised system can we ensure that all profits are ploughed straight back into the service, and that fares are kept down. And common ownership isn’t any longer some obsession of the left, 70% of the British public in a recent poll said they supported renationalisation of the railways. And who can blame then? Not only are privatised railways inefficient and undemocratic, but they’re expensive too, costing taxpayers £1.2 billion a year.
Transport is probably not going to be the decisive make or break policy decision for a voter at the next general election, but it does go to the heart of the future of public services in the UK, and how Labour will build a fairer society through them. Ultimately, it shows who a Labour government will be on the side of, the British people who are seeing bigger fares and worse services, or big business and cosy transport cabals who are focused only on making money. We know which side the Tories will be on, so let’s build a programme for government that sticks up for the whole country.
- By Dan Jeffery