Since Margaret Thatcher, it has been argued by the political ‘centre’ (which has moved significantly towards the Right in recent decades) that privatisation and the free market is the best way to run a service and organise society. However, in light of the sheer chaos and, let’s be honest, nuclear disaster which is Southern Rail… it’s a wonder why anyone of any remote intelligence would take this argument – and it’s rabid, neoliberal cheerleaders – with any form of credence whatsoever.
In order to get to work, I have to use Southern Rail every day of the week. The current strikes are obviously an inconvenience to myself and other passengers; and I understand people’s frustration with the ASLEF union. I do.
Indeed, although I am sympathetic towards the sentiments behind striking: I am not convinced that it is a particularly effective way of confronting the structures of wage-enslaving power. After Thatcher’s ruthless crippling of the miners, strikes in the UK have very rarely succeeded in their rather noble cause of fighting for workers rights in the face of an ugly, unrestrained, 1980s-form of capitalism that appears intent on returning us all to the poverty and gloom of the Victorian Era.
But this is not an article about the pros and cons of striking. You have the differing opinions of Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq ‘my old man’s a bus driver’ Kahn for that. Instead, I would like to look at the deeper issues surrounding Southern Rail and society in general.
Even without the striking ASLEF union, Southern trains are plagued by delays, cancellations and overcrowding. It is quite possibly the worst service I have ever experienced in my life – which by the way, includes trips to both Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. (Oh, you’re so Gap Year).
In the 1990s, we were told that rail privatisation would be a better, cheaper service for us all. Private rail companies, it was argued, would bring in capital and business expertise that would then, as a result, transform the sector’s performance whilst competition would drive efficiency and innovation. However, as the Action for Rail campaign has pointed out – on each of these above measures; UK rail privatisation has been an absolute, unremitting failure.
Today, over 90 per cent of new investment in the railways has been financed by Network Rail, a public sector body, and comes mainly from taxpayer funding or government-underwritten borrowing. Official figures show us that all but one of the private train operators in the UK receive more in subsidies than they return in the form of franchise payments to the government. In fact, the top five recipients of public subsidies received almost £3bn in taxpayer support between 2007-2011. This consequently allowed them to make operating profits of £504m – over 90 per cent (£466m) of which was paid to shareholders.
What’s more, since rail privatisation in 1995 all tickets (regulated and unregulated) have increased by an average of 117 per cent – 24 per cent in real terms. In essence, we’re paying a helluva lot more for an even crappier service.
Privatisation hasn’t just been a disaster for the railways though. Since Royal Mail was privatised by the Tories in 2013, jobs have been consistently lost in favour of maximising profits for shareholders. The Energy companies too, much like the railways, are the recipients of vast amounts of taxpayer-funded subsidies whilst prices, in return, have sky-rocketed.
Do these subsidies go towards making the services cheaper, better or more efficient? No. They line the pockets of already-wealthy shareholders.
The myth of privatisation, and the free market, is the most fundamental issue facing modern society today. The fact that we still live in a political environment where it is seen as better for a public service to be run for-profit as opposed to in the public interest is, quite frankly, absurd. This especially in the context of global economic uncertainty (and crisis), an increasing wealth divide, looming environmental disaster and cultural dislocation.
These same people – the neoliberals, Thatcher, the free market fundamentalists – said that privatisation and the free market would mean that, by now, 2017, we’d all be wealthier, working less hours and earning more. Surprise, surprise: the opposite has in fact happened. Just today as a matter of fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies released a study which suggested that the number of men working part-time in low paid jobs has quadrupled over the last 20 years.
Certainly, the more worrying prospect is this: do you really want to see what happens to the NHS when privatisation/the free market is eventually introduced by the Tories given what’s happened with almost every other public service that is now in private hands?