Aslef’s annual assembly of delegates opened in Bristol yesterday. MICK WHELAN explains why renationalising
the railways is a vote-winner
THE aims of Aslef are quite clear and enshrined in our rule book. Aslef exists to secure the best terms and conditions for train drivers, to negotiate on behalf of our members with the train and freight operating companies, to promote a pride in the job we do, to champion equality in our industry, to provide education services for our members and to work for a fairer, more just, and more equitable society. A socialist society.
That’s what we want. A Labour government committed to socialist values. And that includes bringing back into public ownership the key parts of the British economy which belong to the British people.
Britain’s railways were first nationalised in 1948 by Clement Attlee’s great reforming post-war government. Attlee, who swept to power on an avowedly socialist platform in the Labour landslide of 1945, was determined to seize the economic levers of power in this country. By bringing Britain’s strategic heavy industries, and our key public utilities, into the public sector.
Partly because the private sector had failed. Partly because the Labour government led by Attlee had to rebuild a shattered country after the second world war. And partly because he wanted to remake Britain as a better, fairer, country. A country which worked for everyone, not just a few.
The railways were nationalised to rebuild the network, and the infrastructure, and the rolling stock, after the devastation caused by the Luftwaffe.
The coal industry was nationalised a year earlier, iron and steel a year later. Water, gas, electricity — and the Bank of England — were all brought into public ownership by a great reforming Labour government which also created the National Health Service — its enduring achievement — and the welfare state.
Public ownership gave the government, and the people of this country, control over our national assets, the commanding heights of the economy.
It ensured a co-ordinated approach to production and supply to ensure economic efficiency, survival and revival as post-war reconstruction got under way.
The advantage of a nationalised rail network, as with other natural monopolies, was that central planning could create a better co-ordinated service.
The post-war consensus meant that the Conservative governments of Winston Churchill (1951-55), Anthony Eden (1955-57), Harold Macmillan (1957-63), Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64) and Edward Heath (1970-74) also believed that public ownership of key parts of the economy was best for Britain.
It was Margaret Thatcher, influenced by Sir Keith Joseph and the “voodoo economics” of Ronald Reagan — that was the damning verdict of his fellow Republican, George Bush — and Milton Friedman’s Chicago School, which became so influential in neoliberal thinking, which tried to turn back time. Though, ironically, even this arch-privateer balked at privatising the Queen’s head, on the Royal Mail, and the railways. And when John Major brought in the Railways Act 1994, Thatcher described it as “a privatisation too far.”
When Major privatised our railway he promised three things — competition, innovation, and investment. But there is no competition. The privatised train operating companies all have protected routes, private monopolies — there is precious little innovation. The train operating companies were against the introduction of Oyster cards — an innovation of the publicly owned Transport for London — and all the investment in the industry comes from central government.
Fares have gone up, not down. We now have the highest rail fares in Europe, while trains have become much more crowded to the point where passengers, even those commuters in the south-east of England who usually vote Conservative, are calling for a return of the railways to public ownership.
We know why the train operating companies like privatisation — when they talk about “risk and reward” they mean there is no risk, it’s all reward — but the model is broken. It doesn’t work. It’s no way to run a railway in the 21st century.
For the sake of passengers, and taxpayers, and those of us who work in the rail industry, it is time to rediscover a political purpose, vote Labour on June 8, and bring Britain’s railway back into public ownership.
Mick Whelan is general secretary of Aslef
Delegates at Aslef’s annual conference in Bristol yesterday voted to donate £1,000 to the Morning Star. Petar Petrovic, of Euston branch, moved the motion, seconded by Simon Goode of Wolverhampton.
EC president Tosh McDonald said: “The Morning Star is the only daily newspaper that supports us day in, day out. You’ve all got a copy today and I hope it inspires you to take it more regularly.
Because it’s a newspaper that runs on a shoestring and the fact that it’s been coming out every day for the last 80-odd years is truly remarkable.”
Steve Richardson, of Waterloo Nine Elms, said: “The Morning Star is the only newspaper that provides an industrial correspondent, rather than a political correspondent, to report on industrial matters.”
And Tony Venson, of Rugby, added: “I’ll be getting a bucket to take donations for the Star, later. And I want to hear it rustle, not clink, when it goes in…”