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Challenging 'private good, public bad' dogma

1 May 2012

Comment from General Secretary Manuel Cortes

As you are probably aware, the UK Government recently published its much delayed Command Paper on the future of our railways in response to Sir Roy McNulty’s deeply flawed review of their operation. The Transport Secretary has opted to introduce changes in a way that is fundamentally undemocratic. Frankly, this shows how worried they are about the continuing unpopularity of the botched job that rail privatisation is. Ministers are fully aware how unpopular any MP would become if they to voted for the closure of one of the 675 Category E ticket offices were it in their constituency. In an act of naked cowardice, they have opted to completely by-pass Parliament by outsourcing their dirty work to the subservient private train operators through franchise agreements. This will in effect be closure by stealth, without an ounce of democratic accountability.

I am sure that older readers will remember a Tory Transport Secretary promising that privatisation would lead to cheaper fares and a lower level of public subsidy. Twenty years on, another Tory Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, to no-one’s great surprise, told us – what our union has always said – that this isn’t the case. You would have thought that, having admitted that privatisation had failed, she would have backed the glaringly obvious alternative – public ownership! Unfortunately, humility and common sense play no part in the Tories’ DNA. The best she could come up with was to yet again tinker around the edges of this broken system, even though over £6.5 billion has been siphoned from the industry via dividend payments since privatisation.

The proposed next rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic has one very clear winner – private train operators. They will be given greater freedoms and with it, the chance to make even more money for their fat cat directors and shareholders. Of course, our members - and passengers – will have to deal with the fallout of one in four booking offices in England and Wales being earmarked for closure. Our union will not shy away from taking whatever action is needed to halt this madness and defend your livelihoods. This means working hard with the communities that you serve to defeat these proposals. You can find out how you can play your part in our campaign at www.togetherfor

The dogmatic approach to how the UK’s railways ‘must’ be run is part of a wider malaise. It is best summed up with words to the effect that ‘private is good and public is bad’ – let the market rule supreme seems to be the motto. Nowhere is this more evident that in the way that Governments are dealing with the economic crisis. It was the unfettered greed of private financial institutions that brought us to the edge of the economic abyss. However, it is public services and ordinary working people who are suffering the brunt of the cuts. There is extensive coverage in this Journal about the desperate situation that far too many ordinary Greeks are facing. I have to be brutally honest and tell you that I never thought that in the 21st Century, in the so called First World, I would see people having to queue to get a meal from a soup kitchen. Sadly, the casualties of this economic collapse are far too real. As you have may seen in the media, a pensioner recently shot himself outside the Greek Parliament as he could not bring himself to have to search for his next meal out of rubbish cans. Austerity is unleashing untold misery on millions of ordinary people across Europe. In the face of this, trade unions need to do all we can to show solidarity.

Sadly, this very same dogma is leading both the British and Irish Government down the wrong path. They should be seeking policies that prioritise economic growth and put people back to work. Economic history tells us that no country has ever got out of a deep economic crisis through cutting to the bone and beyond. Yet, in the UK, our Government’s priorities are all wrong: a tax cut for millionaires whilst you get a hike in National Insurance contributions and cuts to public services. They are completely out of touch. Many of you will have the opportunity to make a difference in upcoming local elections – I urge you to use your vote wisely!

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