Confusion Over Labour Policy On Rail Ownership As Shadow Cabinet At Odds
Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves at Labour Conference (Alamy)
Conflicting statements from shadow cabinet members have thrown Labour’s current policy on rail ownership into confusion today, leaving it unclear as to whether Keir Starmer’s party backs nationalisation or not.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves told the BBC on Monday morning that Labour would not go into the next election promising to take private rail, energy or water companies back under public ownership.
"Within our fiscal rules, to be spending billions of pounds on nationalising things, that just doesn't stack up against our fiscal rules,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The answer raised further questions as shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh had assured the Labour-affiliated rail union ASLEF during an interview in March that Labour backed public ownership of rail.
“Privatisation has been an absolute failure for rail – it’s failed taxpayers, it’s failed workers, and it’s failed passengers,” Haigh told the ASLEF Journal. “We are totally committed to public ownership and to putting passengers back at the heart of decision making.”
PoliticsHome was then told Labour’s position had not changed, despite the remarks by Reeves, and the shadow chancellor had not heard the question properly.
A Labour spokesperson said: “We are pragmatic about public ownership as long as it sits within our fiscal rules – a point Rachel was underlining in the interview by referencing this framework. For example, we know there is a positive role for rail in public ownership.”
But after delivering a speech on economic growth in Liverpool, Keir Starmer was asked by the press about utility nationalisation. He said he would take a “pragmatic, not ideological approach”.
“I agree with what Rachel Reeves said this morning,” the Labour leader told journalists. When pressed further on public ownership of rail, he added: “Whether it comes to rail or anything else, I want to be pragmatic about this rather than ideological.”
Haigh subsequently took to Twitter to restate her view of Labour's position, describing the party as "committed to public ownership of rail". She was retweeted by Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner.
Starmer pledged during the 2020 Labour leadership election to back common ownership of public services and specifically to “support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”.
As a leadership candidate, he also told Andrew Neil that the renationalisation of water, energy, rail and mail would be included in the 2024 Labour manifesto.
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of Labour-affiliated rail union TSSA, told PoliticsHome today: "Public ownership of our railways is hugely popular and the established policy of our Labour Party.
“It makes perfect economic sense and will boost our response to the climate emergency we currently so patently face. Bringing our railways into public ownership is the right thing for passengers and taxpayers too.”
A Momentum spokesperson said: "Labour's position on public ownership might change by the hour, but the public's doesn't: poll after poll shows huge support for nationalisation, not just of rail but of energy and water.
"As the cost of living and climate crises bite, public ownership is a vital and popular policy – it is self-defeating for Rachel Reeves to reject it in favour of a failed status quo."
Later in the day, Starmer was forced to re-clarify Labour's position in an interview with The Mirror. He suggested that Labour does, in fact, support nationalisation of the railways – or at least would not reverse the public ownership currently in place.
"My priority is growth and partnership. Not an ideological attachment to particular models of ownership," he said.
The Labour leader added: "Rail is probably different from the others because so much of our rail is already in public ownership. That is what I mean about not being ideological about it. Pragmatically, that is the situation and it's going to be the situation for some time to come."
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