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Taking back what's ours

Tony Blair betrayed his promise to take back our railways from privateers, but the Labour Party conference has shown that the idea of public ownership is far from dead

One of the earliest promises that Tony Blair betrayed as prime minister was his pre-1997 election pledge to take our railways back into public ownership.

Blair and Gordon Brown proclaimed their adherence to neoliberalism, deriding nationalisation as the creed of a bygone age and asserting that regulation of private providers would ensure economic efficiency and consumer protection.

The past 16 years have given the lie to those claims, exposed by privateers' single-minded devotion to corporate profits and shareholder dividends.

Industry watchdogs have shown themselves, despite constant yapping, to have rubber teeth and a tendency to chase their own tail rather than tackle the companies that plunder our household budgets.

Rail union representatives at Labour conference - Mick Carney of TSSA and Tosh McDonald of Aslef - laid bare the nonsense that private is best at running our railways.

McDonald's economic performance contrast between public company Directly Operated Railways on the East Coast Mainline and Virgin's West Coast Mainline hit the nail on the head.


Virgin mops up state subsidies - precisely what privatisation was supposed to end - while DOR returns £800 million to the Treasury.

Carney pointed out that privatisation has failed not only on the railways but for energy, water and the NHS, with Royal Mail waiting in the wings for similar treatment.

Yet an anonymous Labour Party spokesperson said: "Renationalisation is not our policy. Conference is entitled to its view. We are going to do the right thing. We are not going to spend money we do not have."

This recalls new Labour's arrogant refusal to listen to the trade union movement, since every single transport union has stressed for years that rail renationalisation need not cost the earth.

Transferring franchises to the public sector as they expire could bring about a painless farewell to the parasites and a return to public service ethos.

The Labour leadership's spat with the energy companies, complete with threats of power cuts and reduced investment in green energy, reveals the ugly reality of capitalist entitlement culture.

Caroline Flint's vigorous put-down of energy companies' mouthpiece Angela Knight, recalling her previous post as apologist for the big banks who had supposedly done nothing to cause the global financial crisis or fiddle the Libor rate, was a welcome development.


It was strengthened by Ed Miliband's promise to take on the energy giants because "the public have lost faith in this market."

Unfortunately, Miliband's assertion that "I will make this market work for Britain" flies in the face of everything learned about the privateers.

They lie about the scale of their plunder, obscuring their rate of profit by internal price mechanisms, and do not pass on wholesale price reductions to consumers.

Flint's exposure of Knight confirms that the problem of rip-off Britain posed by the privateers is not sectoral. It is endemic to the system.

As McDonald says, the privatised utilities, rail, telecommunications and Royal Mail are natural monopolies that should be in public ownership.

Conference agreed, supporting the rail unions and backing CWU leader Billy Hayes's call for Labour to renationalise Royal Mail, if privatised.

The spell cast over Labour by the private-is-best gurus has lost its potency. Public ownership is an idea whose time has returned.

It remains now to convince the party leadership of the need to move beyond criticism of planned privatisation and to rectify past crimes by returning our stolen assets to the people.


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