Jeremy Corbyn wants to renationalise the trains and make them into ‘The People’s Railways’.
It’s a natty name.
Lucy Powell has said that she would like to bring schools back into local oversight, and some have leapt to the conclusion that this means schools would become ‘local authority ones’ again.
That’s less natty sounding, but lots of people like it as a policy.
Despite sounding quite appealing, and there being genuine possible benefits to both ideas, there is one genuine problem with having a state monopoly running schools or trains.
And it is this: What do you do if the state company is rubbish?
What if the The People’s Railway gets a rubbish CEO, or the head engineer goes off the boil, or there’s a massive fallout between staff and management and it ends up all skewiff?
I don’t say this because I’m against state companies. I say it because this just happens sometimes. To everyone. To private business and to state-run companies. And there’s no magic dust available to stop it just because you call it something nice-sounding like ‘The People’s Railways’.
Ultimately, it’s really hard to make sure the right people with the right magic keep working to standard at all times in any company. That’s why massive much-loved institutions such as Woolworths collapsed in front of our eyes. It’s why we rotate which computer system we think is best. It’s why a football team which rides high for decades suddenly tanks.
Sometimes, however hard-willed or hard-working a company is, it can become so defunct we just can’t make it work well. In the case of a sports team, the group languishes for a while. In the case of Woolworths, they close down and someone else springs into their place (hello Poundstore!).
But you can’t allow languishing if it’s the only service of its kind and the economy hangs on it; and you can’t have it be taken over by someone else if there’s only one entity.
There are many issues with the way governments shifted schools from being managed by local councils to being run by individual charitable trusts but the one thing that struck me as invaluable about that shift was that if a school became problematic, and a local council did not have the capacity to improve the school (and we all know councils that couldn’t), then having trusts available who can step in and help with turnaround is useful.
Before that, the only solution was to contract out the education part of the council itself – which was messy, and weird, and I don’t think the people who want a People’s Railway would let parts of it be outsourced to the private sector if they weren’t working, so that line of argument is irrelevant anyway.
It is also true that there were big issues with rail privatisation, though many have been resolved in the past 20 years.
But, regardless of issues, the super major huge advantage of having a variety of operators in the field is that, if one becomes corrupted or rubbish, you can fire them and bring in a better one.
Bearing this in mind, I want to try a tentative solution.
In the past, I suggested that schools should learn from train companies. Now, I think trains could learn from academy trusts.
(For those already shaking heads in despair – please try to stick with it until the end).
If Corbyn really wants to be radical, his best bet would be encouraging non-profit organisations to bid to run sections of the railways. If he believes, as he seems to, that a public service has enough of a moral mission that it doesn’t need to make profit, and it can still deliver better than profit-making companies, then let’s invite that in.
Indeed, given the government already runs one part of the railyway network, if it wants to set up as one of the operators that tenders to run railway lines, it should be allowed to do so. And where it is the best, it should be given the contract. (This mirrors how I think local authorities ought to be able to pitch to run schools, too, and if they are the best they should get them).
In fact, if elected, Corbyn’s government could even institute a preference for such bidders. Remember: it is the government who writes the rules of the mark-scheme by which companies who want to run a railway are judged and selected. So if Corbyn wanted to give extra marks to a company for being a non-profit, or offer extra points to a company promising to do socially good things – eg keep prices down, open community lines – then he can.
This encouragement of non-profit has worked in the school sector. Education is now in the fortunate position of having many non-profit school organisations and local councils all of whom are able to look after schools. If one fails, another steps in. Yes, there are still issues around transparency and regulation. Those need tightening. But the solution to those problems is to solve them directly: not cause a heap of new transparency and regulation issues by pratting about with mass moves of ownership.
I am all for a discussion about how we can be innovative and make transport policy work better. I am equally fond of some form of local democratic accountability for schools. But simple renationalisation isn’t innovative or useful. It’s a blunt instrument that neglects to learn from many years of hard work in the transport and education sector. That would be a tragedy. We can afford to be more courageous than that.