Tuesday 24 July 2018

Changing Trains

Few coherent people entirely support the policies of just one political party and one of the Labour policies I warm to is the proposal to renationalise the railways.

Despite being old enough to remember how much worse they were before privatisation than they are now, the idea has deep emotional appeal.

Trains really don't make sense in a privatised-for-competition kind of a way: just like the water and sewage companies, it's all a bit peculiar.

Buses work out badly under competition but you can at least conceive that on the profitable routes at the busy time of day three or four operators can whisk a bus along a bit of road and compete on frequency, price or the like.

But trains can't so easily weave around one another. On the odd route where they can compete, the demand that you buy tickets before travel and while trying to crane your neck round to look at a departure board on the other side of the station from the ticket office to check whether you want this ticket or that ticket if you are to be able to board a timely train. But for most of us, rail competition is a work of fiction, as we have a monopolistic supplier for whatever commute or common trundle up the line to the big town we most often make.

But this is a bit of a heart versus head kind of a subject. And the more I think about it, the more I struggle with two things about renationalisation, even ignoring the potential impact on private pension provision and the like.

First - that I think most people cheering on the idea of rail nationalisation believe it will put an end to the ridiculous fares we pay in the UK.  "The rail companies make millions off of us!" goes the cry. 

The trouble is that's millions in profit from billions in turnover: take the profit out of the system and you free about 2% of the money involved.  With annual fare rises officially of the order of 3%-4% and actual fare rises* locally ranging between 10% and an outrageous 45% in recent years, 2% is not a lot to take out of the system. It's not even one year's worth of fare rises.

A fare freeze for a year and you've taken all the profit out of the system.  I think when the fare rises then go back to their usual painful pattern there would be a lot of public disappointment.

The second problem is taking rail investment into the hands of the government. There are two parties who mostly take turns having power in the UK - and to be blunt, one of them is about twice as effective at winning elections as the other.

Thinking about the agendas of recent Chancellors, do we want to go from the ongoing programme of new rolling stock being added to the network in the past twenty years to a situation where two years out of three there would be scant investment because public spending is "bad" and the rail unions bankroll the 'wrong' party?

* How do they keep getting away with this lie by the way? They claim 3% or the like in the headline figures but then every damn ticket gets rounded up by another 9p.

Monday 16 July 2018

Change for the better?

The Beeb have announced changes to political programming on TV. I wonder if they will be for the better?

Certainly, UK television needs better political reporting. Like our newspapers, even the bits that like to think of themselves as responsible grown-up reporting are frustratingly lazy and present a narrative that has its flaws and its sparkle but is crucially devoid of attention span. 

On the left, think back to when Clegg became the leader of the Liberals in 2007 and he announced his aim was to double the number of seats the party had. Never mind what became of that for now: nowhere was there any analysis of what that would actually mean for the party and for politics. A simple grasp of maths tells you that Liberal force with a quarter of the seats in the Commons rather than an eighth would have meant a hung parliament or one of the Establishment parties being deposed from their cosy duopoly. Exploration of what that might mean prior to May 2010: nil.

Moving our lens to the right, at the start of this decade when Ed Miliband became Labour leader and sought to capitalise on the wave of unpopularity of the increase in student tuition fees from £3500 to £6000-9000, the BBC lacked even enough attention span to challenge this with the fact that a few months earlier he had stood on a manifesto that promised to raise them to £15,000 a year and beyond.

And continuing on our rightward trajectory, the BNP were cheerled to popularity by a media that thought they were exciting, newsy and edgy and was happy to help them to a brace of MEPs, and that for UKIP did the same in spades. Society paid and will continue to pay a price for those things, but not the people who enabled it.

I am perhaps kidding myself but the rose-tinted memories of Brian Walden's forensic interview approach on Weekend World in the 80s would surely have had the kind of background reading done thoroughly that seems to be missing now.

It's not just a problem at the BBC, as we saw last year when Channel 4's homophobic news anchor was left to run riot despite the station's pretensions to liberal values. And as for Sky Fox News...

The Beeb are determined to cut expenditure. That's going to happen through cutting broadcast hours. Surely better to save through getting rid of the deadwood presenters. The airtime is all there in the digitally multiplexed broadcast world, after all.

A press release from Auntie promising a shift to a more "conversational, unstuffy approach" that has less screen time and drops the party conference season from the roster doesn't sound like one that will lead to the kind of paying attention we need from our political reportage class.  If anything the reverse. Go on, Beeb, prove me wrong.