Don't bring back British Rail

Bring back British Rail sticker

Rail fares increase every year but this time a coalition of leftists, trade unionists and passenger groups took the opportunity to launch a campaign calling for the re-nationalisation of Britain's rail network.

Every August we discover how much rail fares will be going up by the following January, last year we were told fares would be going up by 6.2% - double the rate of inflation - and this year we've been told it will be by 4.1%, once again outstripping inflation (and wages).

What makes this year different is a number of groups and individuals have come together, declaring themselves to be "the collective voice of disgruntled rail passengers and disheartened train employees" and are demanding the re-nationalisation of the UK rail network.1

Unsurprisingly a number of key figures on the left have voiced their support for the campaign which was on it enough to get some press coverage from the rail fare increase announcement. It remains to be seen if the campaign develops and starts to achieve anything though.2

What has been surprising is the number of anarchists and ultra-leftists who appear to be backing the campaign, the anarchist argument against both privatisation and nationalisation isn't new but seems to have disappeared in recent years.

Making the case far better than I could is a great pamphlet by the Syndicalist Workers' Federation's Tom Brown called Nationalisation and the new boss class, written in 1958. Here's an excellent quote:

"That the nationalised industries should be used as the spearhead of an attempted offensive against wages would have seemed and odd idea to millions about ten or twelve years ago. Now, certainly to the workers in those concerns, the idea seems not at all remote. The state workers soon learned to regard the rulers of these industries as a new set of masters. Anyone who has travelled in South Wales or Durham since the war and has talked with miners there, must soon have noticed how conversation is continually directed against "They", as it ever was.

Before state ownership, "They" were the coalowners and, more particularly, the owners' agents and colliery managers. Now "They" are the National Coal Board, the mine agents and the mine managers, but the antagonistic attitude is the same - as though against a set of alien conquerors, like Anglo-Saxon peasants against Norman overlords.

Nor is the relationship of directors and managers with workers any better in the electrical power industry, gas, railways or airways. "They" are always the bosses, who must be watched, who must not know, who are opponents and must be fought - not merely to improve conditions a little, but even to retain what has already been won."

In short, derail the "re-nationalisation express", for workers control!

  • 1. The campaign has actually existed since 2009 but hasn't had much attention.
  • 2. There has been some standing outside stations.

Posted By

Aug 16 2013 14:59


Attached files


Serge Forward
Aug 16 2013 16:36

Agreed, nationalisation was never anything but the bosses in another guise, with owners of the old companies ending up serving on national boards of industry and had nothing to do with workers' control. However, the whole privatisation process was (and still is) a traumatic experience for the workers concerned and the wider class, especially as it was accompanied by mass demobilisation, mass depoliticisation and the defeat of our class... a defeat which I still see no sign of us recovering from.

Of course, renationalisation misses the point but I can fully understand why leftists hanker for its return. While I don't see it as something we should be supporting, neither should we passively accept continued privatisation measures. Indeed, we should be fighting against privatisation tooth and nail to defend what little we do have.

Aug 16 2013 16:58

Serge Forward:

The struggle is against the restructuring of capitalism (in its perpetual drive for efficiency) at the expense of the working class. Bismarck nationalised the German railway as part of the modernization of the German state/industry. State control or private enterprise it only depends on what is considered advantageous (to the ruling elite) at the time.

Chilli Sauce
Aug 17 2013 07:14

So I think it's really important to make the argument the nationalisastion =/= radical or fundamental social change and that it doesn't eliminate class antagonisms. Similarly, understanding the role of national industries in terms of creating and sustaining a healthy national capital is important. And where anarchists should rightly diverge with the Left is that we don't want to harken back to some golden age of social democratic capitalism.

However, I'm not sure that it then follows that we shouldn't support renationalisation as an interim measure. I mean, from a user's point of view, it's a lot f*cking easier to book a ticket on a single integrated service than bouncing around a dozen sites and hoping you got the best deal. Similarly, I know that if the class was powerful enough we could gain concessions as service users from private or state capital, but the class isn't that organised at the moment and a single provider makes it coordinate nationally.

In terms of workers, it is more difficult to organise across disparate employers. It shouldn’t be, we should be able to organise across those lines. But given the strength of the class, again, a single provider could make organising more advantageous (I'm sure the RMT has this in mind when the support measures like this and the campaign to bring subcontracted trackworkers in house).

Out of curiosity, if this Tory gov't succeeds doing to the NHS what has been done to National Rail over the past few decades, would you still be opposed to a renationalisation campaign?

Joseph Kay
Aug 17 2013 07:39

Maybe the way to think about this is in terms of what we want: ideally totally decommodified transport (free to use, also not based on wage labour) and workers' control (i.e. neither private ownership nor state control). Under those conditions, probably lots of automation could be brought in to reduce necessary work, cos it's wage labour which makes automation bad for workers (job cuts) and users (safety implications).

So we should fight for those things: supporting struggles which increase workers' power and struggles for lower fairs. Transport is potentially quite vulnerable to militant user-led campaigns, whether Planka/checkywatch style self-reduction or fare strikes or blockades of key nodes/infrastructure.

Now in terms of intermediary demands, I'm not sure they're necessary. I mean, as soon as struggles like the above begin to bite into profit margins private providers are going to have a tantrum and demand either state subsidy or renationalisation (and/or violent repression of their users/staff in order to protect their margins, which wouldn't end well for them). So for that reason, nationalisation is invariably the only form of management that can accommodate the things we want in a capitalist context. But I don't see any particular reason to demand it as opposed to the things we want, as the struggle for decommodification and workers control would necessarily continue under a nationalised industry.

Serge Forward
Aug 17 2013 08:30

Another thing to remember about privatisation is it was an important component of the Thatcher government's aim of breaking organised labour in the 1980s and went hand in hand with the anti-union legislation which we still have to deal with today. The outlawing of secondary picketing together with the breaking up of nationalised industries meant that supporting former co-workers became unlawful and this raised the stakes both on an individual level for employees taking industrial action and for weak, reformist trade unions trying to avoid sequestration.

The SWF's analysis was and still is correct and is a line I've always agreed with myself, but in terms of what we have lost as a class partly through the effects of privatisation, I'm less sure of its relevance given the dire situation we are in today. Years ago, it was a perfectly reasonable analysis, but today it sounds almost utopian.

While I might not be arsed with a renationalisation campaign, that doesn't mean I wouldn't welcome renationalisation, if only for the reason that it could make consolidated industrial action a bit more straightforward... and that it's generally better to work for a nationalised industry rather than a private firm.

Joseph Kay
Aug 17 2013 08:47

Fwiw, the RMT are currently challenging the ban on secondary action in the court of human rights, and a recent report by some UN guy strongly criticised the ban, so they might well win (the UK's out of line with European norms here). Though then the UK might just pull out of the convention. And I think (not sure) the RMT's challenge is limited to action by subcontractors at the same place of work as opposed to sympathetic action elsewhere.

Serge Forward
Aug 17 2013 09:15

Yes, it is. It's to include workers at related firms... I seem to recall it came out of a dispute where a section of workers had been transferred to another firm and so could no longer be included in a ballot for industrial action at the same workplace. It's not a blanket reinstatement of the right to secondary picket but it could open up new possibilities and remove some obstructions to organising strike action.

Edward Sexby
Aug 17 2013 09:29

I'm pretty much in agreement with Chilli Sauce on this one.

Just a bit of info (and maybe folks can correct me/add to this) on railways in the U.K. The state has always been pretty heavily involved in their development in one way or another during the twentieth century. It was the post-WWI Liberal government under Lloyd-George that oversaw the rationalization into the "Big Four" companies (GWR, LMS, GNER, SR) from the previous myriad of small operators in order to develop infrastructure etc. Post WWII, further rationalization was required, hence nationalisation. To be fair, this was a huge task in an overgrown network grinding to a halt with age, and didn't really get going until the sixties. Good points: new, cleaner, more modern diesel locos, DMUs and rolling stock introduced. Better pay and conditions for the (unionised) workforce across a single network. Bad points: Beeching, in the pocket of the road transport lobby, slaughtered many important main and branch lines, killed off the development of more modern, continental-style high speed links, acted to deter increased freight traffic in favour of the moterway network, all of which were social and environmental disasters.

Mid-nineties "privatization" was done partly in response to decades of underinvestment, but mainly for free market ideological purposes, as well of course for the huge profits to be had in certain commuter and inter-city routes. Note the quotes here; because it is important to state that what we have now is in fact a semi-privatized system. Freight and passenger services are private franchises whilst the infrastructure is in the hands of Railtrack, a nationalized company. In other words, a classic neo-liberal example of socialisation of risk, privatization of profits.

Hope this helps.

Aug 17 2013 12:25

What benefit would anarchists derive from 'supporting' demands for re-nationalisation, why 'support' something your not prepared to actually advocate and would anarchist 'support' make any diference to the likelyhood of such comming about anyway?

Most here seem to agree that both nationalisation and privatisation have been strategies employed by states at different times to restructure industry in the interests of capitalism rather than workers. The left, being the left of capitalism, does of course have an interest in advocating or supporting various different strategies of this kind, either as an imagined future government or in pursuit of influence within other structures that function to support capitalism such as the trade unions.

I think Joseph's approach above is more to the point. Is the ambivalence shown by some anarchists just down to a fear of not being taken seriously by fellow workers caught up in the media encouraged 'great debate' over the best way to run capitalism?

Chilli Sauce
Aug 17 2013 20:34

Just to clarify my position, I'm with Serge here:

While I might not be arsed with a renationalisation campaign, that doesn't mean I wouldn't welcome renationalisation,

I don't really think the role of anarchists should be to invest energy to advocate for or against a nationalisation campaign. Rather, we should point out the failures and contradictions of Leftist ideology in relation to nationalisations and support struggles around material demands - and I think, sometimes, struggles around state ownership of industry can be organised in such a way to improve the conditions of the class.

I was also thinking about the quote from the miners. I think, while it's fundamentally correct, it speaks to a different time. Class struggle and organisation was much higher and, if a revolutionary situation were to develop then, the miners could very well have been in the vanguard of the movement. Now, that's not the say the analysis is flawed, only that we can't parachute it into a situation which is far from analagous.

Aug 18 2013 01:05

Is there any evidence to show whether it's easier for workers to improve or protect their terms and conditions under state ownership than under private ownership in otherwise comparible situations? I know social democratic common sense says it is, but I don't recall it having seen evidence. Anyone know?

Chilli Sauce
Aug 18 2013 06:43

That's quite a good question, RedEd. I was going on the fact that, in general, the public sector has better working conditions and higher levels of organisation (not to conflate organisation with unionisation, I should add) and that since privitization, the conditions of a lot of ex-public sector contracts have been in decline.

FWIW, in education, the conditions have been much better in the public sector and there remains a residual layer of militants that I've never experienced in a private sector job. I don't know what accounts for that, but I do know it was a lot easier to make contact with other militants (either through unions, informal networks, or professional institutions) when working in state schools.

Aug 18 2013 08:32

RedEd, from my experience it is far easier for workers to improve and protect their terms and conditions in the public sector than in the private sector.

I worked for a private company that contracted work from the public sector, this was taken over by another private company. Under the first company, the majority of the staff were in a union and negotiated with the management over pay, conditions etc. When the second company took over, they simply refused to recognise the union. Our contracts explicitly stated our overtime rate was 'time and half', they simply refused to pay it and offered people overtime at the basic rate only. The second company made a large number of staff redundant and took them back on zero hour contracts. They refused such basic legal requirements as meal breaks, decent staff toilets etc. I know people will say we should have challenged them, but by that stage the workforce was totally demoralised, partly casualised and there was now a huge turnover of staff where once there was a stable workforce.

Following that, I worked in the public sector. Although things were far from perfect, at least my contract was respected, the managment negotiated with unions.

I for one would support rail nationalisation (as well as gas, electric, water etc) as whatever its failings, it is a huge blow for finance capital and the class of people making billions from exploiting peoples needs and it would give huge encouragement to working class people.

Of course British Rail wasnt perfect, but from a workers point of view, would you rather have worked for British Rail or for First Capital Connect?

fingers malone
Aug 18 2013 08:33

I've done exactly the same job for public and private sector employers, at the same time (working two part time jobs at once) and the conditions were incomparable. The public sector job- hard work, and a zero hours contract, but a general culture and of concern for students, a strong and active union branch, more materials, more support. In the private sector job- the students treated purely as money on legs, with no concern for their needs or well being, hardly any materials, not even dictionaries, and no support. And they tried to rip me off for six hundred quid, which took ages and a load of hassle to sort out.

Serge Forward
Aug 18 2013 08:58
Is there any evidence to show whether it's easier for workers to improve or protect their terms and conditions under state ownership than under private ownership in otherwise comparible situations?

There's a wealth of anecdotal evidence from people whose jobs have been privatised. I could talk about my own workplace which management are currently attempting to outsource for the second time (we successfully kyboshed their first attempt to privatise us with a different firm). Pay rates at the new private firm are around half our pay rates, there are no unions organised at the private firm and we will be separated off from those workers who are still part of the public sector. In other words, according to current regulations, we'd be acing unlawfully by respecting each others pickets. Sure we'd have TUPE protection but that can still be overturned if the new company has 'reasonable' cause to ditch our old terms and conditions. It's fucking shit pal.

Other than that, there's bound to be reports, documents commissioned by the TUC and the CBI, also by various left and right think tanks. Here's a couple of more scholarly accounts:

Birdsall, N & Nellis, J. (2003) Winners and Losers: Assessing the Distributional Impact of Privatization, World Development, vol. 31, issue 10, pp1617-1633, Center for Global Development
Strangleman, T. (2004) Work Identity at the End of the Line? Privatisation and Culture Change in the Uk Railway industry. Palgrave

Joseph Kay
Aug 18 2013 09:14

I think all the above makes sense. I've been quite involved in an anti-outsourcing fight at work for all these reasons. But I wonder if it's the same across times and places? E.g. for the last 30 years in the UK, privatisation has been a means for capital to attack and fragment the labour force, so it's gone hand in hand with attacks on terms and conditions. But in times/places where workers were stronger, maybe nationalisation played this role? I think that's what the SWF were getting at, and I dimmly remember nationalised co-ops in Venezuela bypassing minimum wage. So that would suggest it's the balance of class forces that's causal, with privatisation/nationalisation being responses to our weakness/strength respectively.

Aug 18 2013 16:55

I've been caught up in 'anti-privatising' issues at work in the past as well and I understand the difficulties of addressing this from an anarchist or libertarian communist perspective but a couple of points:

Think 'outsourcing' rather than just 'privatising' in relation to for instance the changes in terms of the structure of large private sector industries with 'strong' unions and histories of workplace militancy amongst 'rank and file' workers - it's the same process with the public sector here in the UK just playing catch-up.

The problem has always been trade union and worker sectionalism and the absense of class solidarity. So for instance take the difficulties of getting cross sectional support for common origin issues as between sections of workers even within the same local authority or government department etc.

On a bigger scale also think about this in relatiion to workers experience of the state capitalist eastern block in the past. So like Poland and others we can say that the extent of state ownership and control accross the board provided a transparent material common ground for a more class-wide revolt when conditions became unbearable, but it was the same condition that for decades provided for totalitarian control of the working class (with some similarities by the way in the history of Japans industrialisation).

Aside from all that do the conditions exist anyway for a return to the 'golden age of social democracy'. The average worker has probably decided that's not going to happen before the average leftist, so who is in the leadership of ideas then?