Nationalise This

These are difficult days for the Labour Party. For the wing of the party who aren’t natural Corbynisters, they’re doubly difficult.

Difficult firstly because we’re heading into an election with a leader and set of policies which we think are stuck in the past. We see a floundering government and a Labour leadership failing to provide a credible alternative.

Doubly difficult because this wing of the party had Message Discipline drummed into them from the days of New Labour.

We think our leader is failing and yet we know we must bite our collective tongue in public.

To avoid highlighting policy divisions, the nicest thing we say about Corbyn is that he has a communications problem.

If you’re going to resurrect a range of old labour policies, at least have the decency to do a good spin job on them.   Old policies and old communications make us doubly mad.

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Take the railways, where Corbyn talks about renationalisation. I’m sure his advisors have told him that this is a clever technique called ‘virtue signalling’.

Corbyn may not be about to immediately renationalise all railway franchises but talking about renationalisation sends a signal.

In much the same way that Trump’s ‘build a wall’ rhetoric or Boris Johnson’s ‘£350 million for the NHS’ – were both about sending a message rather than actual truth or practicability, ‘virtue signalling’ is supposedly a way to tell the public that Corbyn ‘gets’ that trains are too expensive

Unfortunately though Corbyn’s advisors are both right and wrong.

They’re right that they are signalling – signalling that Corbyn is still wedded to the past. It’s a gift to the Tories.

Trains are more expensive than they were. But they’re also immeasurably more reliable, safer and more comfortable. And have you been on commuter or rural trains in state owned France? They’re awful.

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British railways were originally nationalised in the late 1940s when the railway system was disjointed and dysfunctional – a collection of private fiefdoms that didn’t work together and hobbled the system.

For all its problems now – the system at least broadly works, with the possible exception of at Southern Trains, the vast commuter service into London.

Here, an ongoing dispute between staff and management has hobbled the service for what seams like years. The government has been unwilling or unable to fix the problem. There is at least an argument for the state taking over the franchise. But could Corbyn not think of a better way? A third way.

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Britain’s creative industries in film, radio and television – and our rampant free press – are vastly better because there is a huge intervention in the market in the form of the BBC.

Private television channels have to work significantly harder to compete with a free-at-the-point-of-use BBC. Our press have to compete with the free-at-the-point-of-use BBC website. And yet we still have a larger and broadly better press than many other countries. Not despite the BBC, but because of it.

This market intervention keeps competition rampant. It drives up quality, helping our creative industries better compete in a global market.

The current model of railway franchises doesn’t favour competition. Each franchise is a virtual monopoly. Competition only comes when franchises are renegotiated.

The system could work better with a small but significant market intervention.

If, as proponents of privatisation argue, the profit motive makes private companies more efficient and competitive than state owned operators, then there should be more competition.

Under the Cameron administration, in 2009 the East Coast Mainline franchise was abandoned by National Express because they couldn’t make enough profit on the line. The franchise was brought back under public control and proved highly profitable and more reliable. But it was then needlessly re-privatised.

Having at least one not-for-profit or employee-owned franchise operating trains in the UK – competing against private operators – would be a market intervention.

At the time of other franchises coming to an end, this new public-interest company would be free to compete with the private ones to take over additional franchises.

This would be a sensible way of Corbyn using modern methods to achieve cheaper and more efficient railways. It would be a New Labour way. Which is why Corbyn would be against it. He’s wedded to principal rather than outcome.

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This brings us back to the point of nationalisation – fixing a broken system.

And here there is an opportunity to use nationalisation to actually solve a major problem. But also an opportunity for Corbyn to send a signal – that he’s modern and not stuck in the past

Many of our cities are blighted with illegal levels of pollution. Thousands of lives end prematurely because of toxic particulates, mostly emitted from our cars, busses and trucks. The current government has done virtually nothing to discourage the use of dirty diesels and encourage the adoption of cleaner electric cars.

The problem with electric cars is not so much the range anxiety they are said to elicit in their drivers – but charger anxiety.

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Over the last few months I’ve been using a variety of electric cars through a local car-sharing service – the electric version of Zip Car.

The cars are fun to drive around town and have a decent enough range for moderate trips.

But the problem comes when you try and charge the car. The system is essentially broken.

Firstly there is an absurd situation where there are, by my count, three or four different types of charger plug. You first have to find a charging point that fits your type of electric car.  Can you imagine different and incompatible types of petrol pump nozzles?

Even if you get the right plug, and manage to plug in your car, you find many charger providers are not compatible with each other.

Source London, Charge Your Car, Chargepoint and Ecotricity are just some of the providers operating near me.

But to use most of these you need a specific subscription and a special membership card with the specific provider.

It’s the equivalent of driving a petrol car and only being able to fill up at a petrol station where you have a subscription.

At some electric chargers you pay by the minute, others by the amount of electricity delivered, and others on a monthly flat rate.

Imagine the feeling of delight when you arrive, with a virtually empty battery at a charging point, only to find, as your delight turns to dismay, that the proprietary subscription card in your car won’t operate the charger – almost none except credit cards.

If you own or use an electric car, you can’t go out for a long drive without a bit of technical knowledge, forward planning and a dose of luck. It’s a huge hurdle – but one that’s easy to overcome.

What’s holding back the mass adoption of electric cars is not really the range of the batteries but the complexity and lack of charging infrastructure.

It seems to me to be a system crying out for nationalisation. For only when chargers are ubiquitous and utterly simple can there be mass adoption.

The government should mandate standards and roll out chargers the length and breadth of the country.

This would end the last major hurdle to the adoption of electric vehicles in the UK. Only when you know you can charge anywhere, anytime will electric cars be worry free and truly mainstream.

Tesla have started to realise this an build their own proprietary system – but this further fragments the market.

For the last thirty years Corbyn has been desperate to nationalise something.

When he finally gets the chance, he picks the wrong thing.

And electric cars – more than the railways – would signal he was looking to the future, rather than the past; that he recognised our cities were polluted and that people aspired to their own method of transport.

He doesn’t.

You might say he’s stuck with a signal failure.

Or at least a flat battery.

 

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