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So there are a bunch of Labour PPCs and assorted others today doing a coordinated clamour for renationalisation of the railways. This is a superficially attractive idea, and one that up until recently I might have agreed with myself, so I want to go into why I now believe it would be bloody stupid.

The way that privatisation was done was a cock up. You'll get no argument from me on that. The current franchise system for Train Operating Companies (hereinafter TOCs) is the worst of both worlds. Also, I have no issues with the fact that after the collapse of Railtrack, the infrastructure was basically brought back under state control in the guise of Network Rail. Land and track beds are a natural monopoly, and thus state control makes sense**. The actual rolling stock, though? Why does that have to be a monopoly? It doesn't.

The reason people still feel like it does is because of the afore-mentioned stupid franchise system, which means we basically have several regional monopolies rather than one national one***. We have competition on the railways in the same way we have competition for huge government contracts in other areas, and it's always the same usual suspects who bid for contracts because they are the only ones who can, and we end up with a cartel who fleece both the consumer at the ticket barrier and the taxpayer on the subsidies****.

In the few cases where some little company has managed to get an Open Access Rail contract, you can see how TOCs' contracts might work under a properly Liberal system. The example local to me is Grand Central, who run a service from various West Yorkshire stations to King's Cross. Their trains are beautiful, their service makes sense, and their prices are great. Contrast this with the Byzantine and delapidated system run by Northern Rail (my local franchise holder), or BR when the railways were still under state control, and you start to see what I'm driving at.

Train services aren't shit because they were privatised, they were shit under BR too. Train services are shit because they weren't privatised enough. You can't have proper competition under a franchise system. If there was proper competition there would be room for lots more companies like Grand Central to bid for (say) one or two slots on the timetable, start small, and build up really great services, instead of the monolithic state-in-all-but-name services we have now. There would be room for community-run and co-op run services to start up and (hopefully) flourish. Under the current system there's no way that can happen.

What is it that convinced me that all this is true? The NHS. NHS England operates under a much more liberal market structure than NHS Scotland, NHS Northern Ireland, or NHS Wales. This is consistently painted as a Bad Thing by many groups on the left. And yet, I am a Liberal, and I don't care what system of ownership something has on idealogical grounds, I care what works to deliver the best outcomes for people. On pretty much every measure - from life expectancy to waiting times - NHS England outperforms the other three. Proper liberalisation of the market WORKS, and that is why I am for it in the case of the railways.

In political terms, of course, the problem with this is that renationalisation makes some superficial sense. The current system is shit, does cost us more in subsidies and buggering about than the nationalised system did, and is in urgent need of reform. I actually think that in terms of winning votes, the Labour party might be onto something, because one of the types of person this will appeal to is the type of politically illiterate pub bore who has an opinion on everything, doesn't care that many of his opinions are mutually contradictory, and doesn't think about the consequences of what would happen if his ideas all came to pass. This type of person will look at the current system, see it's shit, shrug and say "well, renationalise the railways. That'll solve it." and move on to talking about how lazy immigrants who came over here to claim benefits have stolen his job by working more hours than him.

This is the type of voter that Labour are currently haemmoraging in droves to UKIP*****, so appealing to them is a good survival tactic for them. The type of person who cheers when Labour think of yet another thing they are going to fund with the bankers' bonus tax which they currently plan to spend many times over.

Of course I have no doubt that were renationalisation to make it into the Labour manifesto it wouldn't actually happen were they to get in******, but that won't really matter in electoral terms. There are a lot more reactionary pub bores than there are people who actually pay attention to what works. The problem for Lib Dems is: how do we package sensible policies in a way that makes sense to the reactionary pub bore? This, I think, is a problem which I would make a LOT of money if I could solve...



*with a little help from [personal profile] matgb and Alisdair, with whom I regularly have discussions about political stuff, both online and off.
**similarly with roads, etc.
***The reason we have it is because John Major had romantic notions about the golden age of rail and wanted to bring back GWR etc. and went about it in a cack-handed way. I have a soft spot for Major, and think he is harshly judged as a PM, but he really did make an arse of privatising the railways.
****just like in the arena of justice and security it's always G4S and Serco who end up with government contracts because of the ridiculous preffered bidder system and the size of the contracts being drawn up, but that's a blog post for another day.
*****whose entire policy platform is designed in this reactionary way - "X is a problem. How do we solve X? Y might work." with no consideration of the fact that Y doesn't work with any of the other policies they propose, and indeed, actively works against some of them... -_-"
******Don't even get me started on the rank hypocrisy of a party which introduced tuition fees against a manifesto promise that they wouldn't, and then raised them against a manifesto promise that they wouldn't attacking US on the fact that we kept tuition fees lower than they would have been under either Labour OR Tories governing alone... -_-"
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