Beyond nationalisation: a left plan for real public transport
Updated: Jul 20
by Janine Booth
Transcript of a speech as part of a panel on Covid-19, democratic ownership and the future of the economy in May 2020 - organised by Another Europe Is Possible.
I'm going to be talking mainly about transport. Being on a panel, it is a very good way of ensuring that you don't cover the same ground as anyone else because no one else ever talks about transport. Transport is not one of the left's sexy issues.
We don't go on many demos about transport and you'd actually be pushed to know what the left's policy is on transport other than: "It should be publicly owned and probably a bit better than it is". I think we need to do better than that.
Having said that, a coronavirus pandemic is probably not the most opportune time to promote public transport, because we're all under advice to not travel on it, so as to not spread the virus. However, it should be pointed out in the interest of rationality that at any other time than a global pandemic, public transport is infinitely superior to private transport on many levels.
It's far safer. Measured in deaths per passenger mile, it's negligible on public transport compared to cars, lorries...
It is healthier. Societies which have better public transport have better health outcomes.
It is better for the environment.
It's a more efficient use of land. It takes much less land to run public transport than it does private transport.
I have worked on London Underground for 23 years and I've studied and learned a bit about it in that time. I did write a book about it - I might promote it in the chat in a bit! - and as part of my study of the history and governance of London Underground.
I came to the conclusion that London Underground's well-being in terms of how good a service it is depends on five factors.
One: its ownership - is it owned publicly or privately?
Two: its degree of integration - Is it an integrated whole or broken up by contracting out and separated management?
Three: How well is it funded? Surprisingly enough (being sarcastic), the better it's funded the better service it provides.
Four: its governance - Is it governed by national or local government? It does better when it's run by a London body than when it's run by national government, particularly by an elected London body
And fifthly: its ethos - Is it allowed to run as a public service as part of our social infrastructure or is it compelled to operate as a business balancing the books?
Reaching those conclusions then leads us on to discuss what you might call 'beyond nationalisation'. Because the left does tend to say its answer to ownership of things is 'nationalise it'. There are various reasons why we've got to say more than that or in some cases not say it at all.
So the first thing I want to do is ... I do have something of a reputation for pedantry about words. So - I'm going to be pedantic here but it's really important: nationalisation and public ownership are not the same.
Nationalisation means public ownership by the national government. I wouldn't want London Underground to be nationalised: I don't want it owned and run by a national government. It does a lot better when it's publicly owned by London government.
This is particularly pertinent now in the Covid crisis when we're talking about care homes and we're seeing terrible death rates in care homes. This against the background of decades of care homes being underfunded, contracted out to private companies who run them as cheaply as possible, pay their workers as little as possible, scrimp and save as much as possible in looking after their residents just so they can make a profit. People want to say - absolutely rightly - bring social care back into public ownership. But please don't say 'nationalise social care' - because 'nationalise' means put the national government in charge of it. We'd be then saying that you are against returning it to local authority control, where I think it would be much better off.
So that's a pedantic point about nationalisation. If you mean public ownership, say public ownership. Only say nationalisation if you actually mean ownership by the national government.
But there's more to 'beyond nationalisation' than that. Just because something is publicly owned it doesn't necessarily mean it's good.
You have to be of a certain age to remember British Rail. You might remember it fondly if you're wearing your rose-tinted spectacles or if you're comparing it with the privatised railway now. But you won't remember thinking very fondly of it at the time. It was rubbish: unreliable, the food was terrible, there was rampant low pay amongst the workforce. It is not a model of a socialist public transport system.
We need to go beyond this notion of a bureaucratic nationalisation and talk about public ownership under democratic control. It is not good enough to just have public ownership. It also needs to be under public control and planned and run in the public common interest, not left to function as a business.
And because transport is part of our social infra-structure, planning transport means we can also reshape other aspects of our lives. We can replan city centres, we can reorganise where people work in relation to where they live etc.
Let's take a quick trip back to the 1930s. London Transport was brought into public ownership on the basis of a plan drafted by Herbert Morrison (the literal and political grandfather of Peter Mandelson) and he did it in what in what Ernest Bevin (who himself was pretty right-wing, bureaucratic and awful) described as 'positively the worst form of public ownership'. Because he brought it into public ownership and put it under the control of a London passenger transport board. That consisted mainly of the previous private owners. So it was very much not the sort of thing that I think we would want to see.
What then happened was that London Transport was rubbish. There were near-riots on the streets of London and only at that point was investment made and the services improved.
There have been some schemes floated down the years about democratic management of public transport - like some nominees from mayors, and workers' representatives and stuff like that. But I do think it's important to draw a distinction between - workers' control of industry and having some workers on the board. Because if you have a board - and if it's elected it will be better than the appointed boards we have now; but, if it's just an elected board sitting on top of a bureaucratic management structure of the railway or transport service, then it's not going to give us what we want.
The workers' rank-and-file movements of the 1970s had as one of their key demands 'no union reps on the London Transport board'. Because they didn't want to see union reps co-opted into being bosses, essentially. So, rather than having an elected board sitting on top of a bureaucratic system, what we need is much more thoroughgoing democracy in the running of public transport.
Pretty much every day at work, something happens and someone sizes up something management have done and says "obviously you know we could run it better". It's like an instinct: people know that workers know better how to run the system.
So, I think what we need in public transport is to pose it not just in terms of 'nationalise the railways', but in terms of a workers' and passengers' plan. So that public transport, including the railway industry, should be run by a democratically drafted and agreed workers' and passengers' plan.
I would anticipate that would improve the accessibility of the railway service particularly in relation to fares. But also accessibility to disabled people; accessibility to rural areas; extending the service into new areas; undoing cuts from the past; making a service that's more reliable; using new technology to improve the service and to work with staff. Rather than doing what public transport does at the moment, which is prioritising use of new technology to extract money from your pocket rather than to operate the system.
So just to finish up in my remaining one minute ... Just to go back to the Covid crisis ... One thing's noticeable - isn't it? - that is that the capitalist ideologues have gone quiet. We've not heard a lot of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman being quoted lately. No-one's saying it 'leave it to the market, and the market will sort out Covid'.
In one sense that's an opportunity. That sounds a bit sick, but it's an opportunity because capitalism is exposing how inadequate it is in dealing with crises. But if we're really going to expose that, then we have to explain more clearly what our socialist alternative is and the socialist alternative is not 'the government owns stuff and spends a lot of money'.
Socialism is measured not by how much government spends but by how much control workers have. Public services run on socialist lines means them being run democratically by workers and users. Socialism is not the same as state ownership if the state doesn't collectively belong to the working class.
This video and transcript first appeared on Janine Booth's website. Reproduced with the author's permission.