Few things can kill the Christmas spirit as effectively as news about rail fare rises. This was demonstrated again this week as an annual announcement, which feels more predictable than some of my local trains, revealed that the average cost of tickets is up 3.1 per cent.
The news has already generated countless vox pops with angry commuters and public protests across the country. Jeremy Corbyn was quick to brand the hike a ‘disgrace’ and said: ‘Our railway system should work for the interests of everybody, not just the profits of a few’. The Labour Party revealed new research, claiming that our trains have never been so packed.
There is no doubt that the issue represents an open goal for Labour. The problem with our national debate about rail is that the detail about how our rail networks are actually funded and how those funds are invested are usually the first things to be dumped. Few people want to be seen defending the current settlement and few voters will bother listening anyway. Price hikes frame the issue and suck all of the oxygen out of the room.
Anything that hits the wallet directly — that stares back at you on the screen at London Euston or Manchester Piccadilly — also becomes a gateway into a bigger conversation about nationalisation and reforming the economic settlement. And this again benefits Labour. Consider the stats. Depending on which poll you look at, between 60 and 75 per cent of British people would back the renationalisation of rail. If you crunch the numbers on who is most likely to hold this view then you will find that it is a woman, aged 56-65 years old, who lives in London, on a below average income and who votes Labour. But the thing about nationalisation is that because it is so popular it tends to draw in people from across the spectrum. While Labour voters tend to be most supportive, recent polls suggest that more than half of Conservative voters similarly want to see both rail and the Royal Mail firmly back in public hands while more than 40 per cent want the same for water.
Nor are there particularly big generational differences. The argument that is popular on the right, that nationalisation is only supported by people who do not remember the turmoil in earlier decades, is not convincing. The old are basically just as likely as the young to back the policy. And these views are entrenched; they pre-date Corbyn. He is riding the wave rather than creating it. People liked nationalisation before him and they will like it when he is gone.
The other thing about this issue is that public support for rail nationalisation also tends to be highly correlated with support for doing the same to water, and electricity. In short, if you think that we should put rail networks fully back into public ownership then you probably think that we should do the same to water and electricity. So, what might look like a fairly predictable and narrow debate about rail fare hikes actually ends up feeding a much broader demand, which again benefits Labour. This becomes a nightmare for industry and investors because if Water Company X or Rail Network Y messes up on service delivery then it can bleed into how people view the sector in general, as well as other sectors that they associate with the public good, all of which bolsters support for a major shake-up. So, when you see, as I do, seven in ten voters agreeing with statements like ‘private companies running public services has gone too far or much too far’ you begin to grasp why Corbyn spends every January on this issue.
The Conservatives have good reason to worry. For one thing, ever since the general election in 2017 their electorate has contained more workers and ex-Kippers who are looking for a little bit more economic interventionism. Not all of them use trains, of course, but most think that the economic settlement is rigged against them.
Another problem is how the wider winds in British politics are making people steadily more receptive to what I call ‘Corbynomics’. Numerous studies over the last two years, from YouGov to the Legatum Institute, have shown us how large chunks of the electorate perceive that the economic settlement is rigged, that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor, that globalisation is broadly positive but that it needs tighter regulation and that while capitalism is the best economic system that we have it is also one that is fuelling inequalities.
These deeper currents are creating very real opportunities for Corbyn who still only needs around a 2-point uniform swing to govern as part of a coalition. The National Centre for Social Research recently pointed out that for the first time since 2002, 60 per cent of people now want taxes to rise so that we can spend more on health, education and social benefits. This compares to just 31 per cent when Cameron was elected in 2010. True, Labour supporters are the most likely to want to see such tax increases and it may be that people become less supportive as this drifts closer to reality. Yet, it is still worth reflecting on the fact that more than half of Conservative voters also want to see tax increases in order to spend more on public services.
Passionate Thatcherites and cabinet ministers who talk of a low-tax, low-regulation Singapore-on-Thames would do well to reflect on these findings as they suggest that it will be extremely difficult to carry the public with them. Unless they do find something more resonant to say then they may find they no longer have an opportunity to say anything at all.