Could Rail Re-Nationalisation Stop the Conservative Party in its Tracks?
Jake Lynch visits the west Yorkshire constituency where Labour holds a slim majority of 249. Could its commitment to improving train services help the party to retain the seat?
“There will be a publicly owned, publicly accountable railway system under a Labour Government”. The pledge was rapturously received by delegates to the party’s annual conference in Brighton. The year was 1995, the speaker Tony Blair.
More than two decades on, Jeremy Corbyn looks set to make good on that promise – if he can reach Downing Street.
In Keighley, a branch line town in west Yorkshire, Labour’s John Grogan is defending a majority of just 249. In a seat that has always been marginal – and has often gone the way of the country as a whole – could re-nationalisation of train services convince enough voters to put a tick next to red on 12 December?
“If I don’t turn up, I don’t get paid,” said 23-year-old Toyhu Bullah, who works at a retail store in Bradford. The Northern Rail service should get him to the city’s Forster Square station in about 25 minutes, but he has “had a few mishaps”. The previous day, he had “waited and waited… the Leeds train came, but there was no Bradford train. Then it said it was 21 minutes late”. On another occasion, his father had to drive him to work when the trains simply did not run. His bosses “understand” the difficulties, but his pay is docked when he misses the start of a shift.
In the station’s waiting room, Peter Rushworth, a 30-year-old architect confirmed that he, too, is often made late for work – “about 30% of the time” – in nearby Bingley because of delays on Northern Rail. He had heard of the Labour Party’s plans to bring the service back into public ownership, but said it would not sway his vote, which is destined for Labour come what may. He didn’t have a problem with the policy though, he added.
Shivering on the platform, commuters groaned when the announcements board showed the cancellation of the 7.44am to Leeds. Performance figures published the previous day showed that well under half of all trains operated by the company arrived within a minute of the scheduled time. Northern Rail blamed “a congested network” – suggesting exactly the kind of difficulties in coordinating trains and track that opponents of rail privatisation warned about all along.
So, would this aspect of Labour’s plans persuade Keighley voters to extend Mr Grogan’s tenure?
Christine Robinson, a 53-year-old civil servant and “undecided” voter, has to reach the office in Bradford by 8.30. Northern Rail is “terrible”, she agreed, as “half the time, the trains are cancelled”.
But, for her, the worth of a re-nationalised service “would depend on whether they put in the resources they say they would”. Anyway, there are “bigger issues in the election than Northern Rail: the environment, and the one everyone’s fed up talking about – Brexit”.
At 53%, the Leave vote in Keighley was slightly above the national average and the constituency is high on Boris Johnson’s target list.
Later that morning, the defending Labour candidate was overseeing a busy campaign office where plans were being finalised for the distribution of campaign poster boards. Talk to voters about re-nationalising the railways “in the abstract”, he told me, “and they’re willing to engage. But when you tell them Northern Rail would come back under public ownership, their eyes light up”.
As to the B-word itself, John Grogan is one of a hundred or so Remain Labour MPs who have said in advance that – whatever deal Jeremy Corbyn, if elected Prime Minister, manages to negotiate with Brussels for Britain to leave the EU – they would support Remain in a subsequent referendum. Grogan’s campaign brochures all have a box in EU blue, with text highlighting the “5,000 manufacturing jobs in the area, many of which rely on trade with Europe”.
While Labour nationally has not joined the so-called Unite to Remain campaign for next month’s General Election, Grogan himself has been rewarded by the Green Party’s decision not to contest the Keighley and Ilkley seat. “That’s very helpful to us,” he admitted. The 2% the party received in 2017 could tip the balance in a tight race.
If Keighley itself is the Labour-leaning urban hub, the combination with a more Conservative rural hinterland helps to insulate its MPs from complacency. The majority for the seat, one way or another, has come in at under a thousand on five occasions since the Second World War.
Maureen Place was out walking her dog near the Bronte Parsonage Museum, which has turned this corner of west Yorkshire into a tourist honeypot. “He’s a very good MP,” the 78-year-old said of Grogan. “He’s done a lot for the area.” However, she added: “His boss is Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t like him. So I’m undecided… There’s just summat about him. I think he’s a pacifist! He’s going to let us have nuclear, but he says he’ll never use it. He’s a bit communistic”.
“Jeremy is often raised on the doorstep”, Grogan affirmed. “I want him to be Prime Minister. But I also want Emily Thornberry as our Foreign Secretary, I want Keir Starmer overseeing our relations with the EU. Ultimately, it’s a team.”
Rail should be a ‘gimme’ for Labour. Privatisation was never popular and large and consistent majorities have told pollsters ever since that it should be reversed.
“That would mean it’s in our hands,” Mr Bullah, waiting for his train at Keighley station, explained. As well as added investment, passengers would then see some accountability – widely felt to be lacking at Northern Rail.
Among all the other spending commitments earmarked for the party’s manifesto, the re-nationalisation of rail services will have to compete for priority status in Keighley. The morning’s news was dominated by John McDonnell’s proposal for free broadband for all.
Patrick Moran, 71, a local retiree whose garden fence sports a massive poster for the Conservative candidate, Robbie Moore, assessed the coming contest as “50:50”. The broadband policy “would bankrupt the country,” he said, but “if you promise people something for nothing, they’ll vote for it”.
None of the ballyhoo that accompanied the Shadow Chancellor’s announcement has yet been lavished on plans for rail. The information superhighway is, it seems, seen as more glamorous and more newsworthy than the iron road.
The pledge to re-nationalise rail was quietly dropped weeks before the 1997 General Election, which rewarded Tony Blair with a landslide Commons majority. The then Shadow Transport Secretary Clare Short was sent to a platform at Swindon station on a Friday afternoon to announce the shift – a time and venue carefully chosen to minimise the number of journalists likely to attend. For both fiscal and – in Blair’s case – ideological reasons, the promise proved easier to make than to keep.
The cheapest way to bring rail back into public ownership would be simply to wait out the expiry of current franchises – 2025, in the case of Northern Rail. John Grogan raised the possibility of ending it earlier if it can be proved that the company is breaking the rules. But, such a policy would risk halting any new investment in its tracks.
The commuters of Keighley may have to wait a while yet to see any sustained improvement in their train services.