Tuesday, July 06, 2010
All Aboard the Gravy Train
This column of mine appears in the Morning Star. It's also cross-posted at the Campaign for Public Ownership.
Neil Clark assesses the bleak future of our public services under the Con-Dem regime.
What have Britain's privatised railways got in common with the England football team?
Every time you think they can't possibly get any worse, they prove you wrong.
The state of the railways during New Labour's period of office can be compared to England's performance against Algeria - desperately poor.
But just two months on from the election it's clear the railways during the era of the Con-Dem coalition are going to be more like England v Germany - a total catastrophe.
Labour, to their shame, accepted privatisation. Under their so-called rail price formula they allowed train companies to raise prices by 1 per cent above the level of the RPI measure of inflation.
But at least there was some form of restriction on raising ticket prices.
The policy of the "progressive" coalition, however, is simply to let the privateers do what they want.
The rail price formula is likely to be scrapped, meaning that commuters, already forced to pay the highest train fares in Europe, face increases of up to 10 per cent in the new year.
While Labour renationalised the failing east coast rail service after NXEC, a subsidiary of National Express, attempted to get its contract renegotiated, the Con-Dems advocate giving such profiteering rail companies longer franchises.
National Express, which Labour had threatened to bar from making new franchise bids, has already been allowed to keep its C2C and East Anglia train services.
Back in February, it was reported that the National Express chairman John Devaney met with members of the Conservative transport team to discuss the rail franchising market. It seems the meeting was a huge success for him.
The fanatically neoliberal Transport Minister Philip Hammond has since announced a value-for-money review on Britain's railways.
"Passenger and taxpayers will rightly ask why it is that our railways ... are so much more expensive than those in Europe," he said.
But we all know the answer to that one Mr Minister. It's because Britain's railways - unlike in mainland Europe - are privatised.
Dr B Ching's excellent Signal Failures column in Private Eye points out that the review's scoping report doesn't mention private firms' duty to maximise British rail profits.
An examination of why Britain's railways are so expensive which doesn't look into the ownership of them is rather like having a review into the causes of World War II which excludes any mention of Adolf Hitler and the nazis.
A reason to invade
"As soon as I hear a "rogue state" declared by the US I reach for my 1993 Encyclopaedia of World Geography, turn to the page on the latest declared enemy, and study the box which lists 'major resources'," wrote Felicity Arbuthnot in her excellent Star article last week.
Felicity found natural gas, coal, iron ore, beryllium, gold, silver, lapis lazuli, sulphur, chrome and copper when she looked up Afghanistan prior to the US invasion.
If we look at Kosovo, another target for a US-led military campaign, it's a similar story. The former province of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia possesses Europe's second largest coal reserves. It also has sizeable deposits of nickel, lead, gold, silver, tin, zinc, magnesium, kaolin, quartz, asbestos, limestone, chrome, marble, and bauxite.
Under Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist administration, Kosovo's mineral wealth and indeed the valuable assets of the rest of Yugoslavia, was held in social ownership.
Today, most of it has been privatised. In the same way that the invaders of Iraq made their priorities clear by making a bee-line for the oil fields, so NATO forces in Kosovo made their motivation clear by forcibly seizing the huge Trepca mining complex from its workers and managers shortly after the 1999 war.
The "official" line is that the US and its allies liberated Kosovo because of Serbian persecution of Kosovan Albanians. If you believe that one, you'll also no doubt believe that the war in Afghanistan is about making our streets safe from terrorism, and that Iraq was attacked because the West thought Saddam had WMD.
Meanwhile if you have a few spare moments this week, look up the major resources of Iran - and it'll become clear why the Islamic Republic is the latest country in the line of fire.
Royal Mail under threat
1516 was the year that Thomas More published Utopia, King Ferdinand II of Spain died and the Ottoman Empire invaded Syria.
It was also the year when Henry VIII founded the Royal Mail and for 494 years the service has been in the hands of the British state.
Yet today it's threatened with 100 per cent privatisation by Britain's uber-Thatcherite coalition.
To sugar the pill, and to maintain the pretence that the privatisation is a "progressive" measure, postal workers are likely to be offered shares in the company again (former chairman Allan Leighton having pioneered the idea in 2006).
It's a confidence trick that Robert Maxwell would have been proud of - as of course, postal workers, in common with the rest of us, already own the Royal Mail as British citizens.
One newspaper said that the sell-off would present an "early test" for the new Labour leader as if Labour opposes it, the coalition would "seize on it as evidence of a shift to the left."
How very interesting. The neoliberal grip on British politics is now so strong that opposing the sell-off of a public institution which has been in state hands since the 16th century is regarded as a "shift to the left."
I wonder what Lord Salisbury, Arthur Balfour, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill - and all the other Conservative Prime Ministers in history who would have recoiled in horror at the prospect of selling off the Royal Mail - would have thought of that.